All told, the president is seeking $74 billion for USDA or $1.4 billion (2 percent) more than it requested in its FY 2003 proposal – which Congress has yet to approve – and $5.4 billion (8 percent) more than in FY 2001.

“This budget reflects this administration’s continued commitment to strong conservation practices to help farmers, protection of our food supply and ensuring strong nutrition programs for a healthier America,” Veneman said in press conference from USDA headquarters this morning.

“We have seen USDA’s budget grow by 8 percent since this Administration came to office, representing a strong record and commitment to farmers and ranchers, trade expansion and rural development.”

A House-Senate conference committee is expected to begin considering an omnibus appropriations bill that would fund USDA and 10 other government departments for the remainder of the 2003 fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

Secretary Veneman was joined by Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman to highlight the administration’s conservation and environmental budgets, which are funded at $30 billion, up more than $1 billion from FY 2003.

“Many of these programs are providing incentives for our nation’s farmers and ranchers, the best stewards of the land, to better protect and conserve working farmlands. This is not only good news for agriculture, but for communities throughout the country.”

In a detailed briefing on USDA’s budget proposal, the Secretary said that the FY2004 budget supports the goals outlined in the administration’s policy book, Food and Agriculture Policy: Taking Stock for a New Century, and the Department’s five-year strategic plan. Key aspects of the budget includes the following areas:

Safeguarding America’s homeland and Protecting the Food Supply:

The budget seeks record-level support for USDA’s Food Safety Inspection System (FSIS) meat and poultry food safety programs as well as increases to strengthen agricultural protection systems. FSIS funding will increase to a program level of $899 million, an increase of nearly $42 million over the FY2003 and represents a $117 million (or 15 percent) increase in food safety programs since FY2001.

The $899 million for FSIS is comprised of $797 million in appropriated funds and new fees for inspection services provided beyond an approved shift. In addition, existing user fees are expected to generate $102 million. Funding for FSIS will support 7,680 food safety inspectors, an increase of 80 inspectors, and provide specialized training for the inspection workforce, increase microbiological testing and sampling, strengthen foreign surveillance programs and increase public education efforts.

Regarding homeland security and agricultural protection programs, the budget includes nearly $47 million in new funding to strengthen laboratory security measures; conduct research on emerging animal diseases; develop new vaccines; create new bio-security database systems; and continue development of the unified Federal-State Diagnostic Network for identifying and responding to high risk pathogens.

The Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) would receive a $30 million increase for inspection services; expanding the availability of foot-and-mouth disease vaccines; providing protection against chronic wasting disease and poultry diseases; and expanding diagnostic and other scientific/technical services. In addition, $200 million is requested for the National Research Initiative.

Continued Implementation and Administration of the 2002 farm bill:

The budget supports the continued implementation of the 2002 farm bill, which includes providing historic increases for conservation funding and protecting natural resources. As announced last week, the total program level funding for farm bill conservation programs increases by $1.7 billion, from $2.2 billion in FY2001 to almost $3.9 billion in FY2004. This includes $432 million for conservation technical assistance in support of farm bill implementation.

Specifically, the budget request includes $2 billion for the Conservation Reserve Program (+$139 million); $850 million for the EQIP program (+$255 million); $250 million for the Wetlands Reserve Program to enroll an additional 200,000 acres; $112 million for the Farmland Protection Program (+$27 million); $85 million for the Grassland Reserve Program (+$13 million): $51 million for Ground and Surface Water Conservation (+$13 million); $42 million for the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (+$16 million); $19 million for the new Conservation Security Program; and $8 million for water conservation and water quality enhancements in the Klamath Basin of Oregon and California.

Funding for a Food and Nutrition Safety Net:

The FY2004 budget reflects the Bush Administration’s continued commitment to the nutrition safety net by including a record of $42.9 billion for domestic food assistance programs, a $1.7 billion increase over FY2003. The budget request supports an estimated 21.6 million food stamp participants; a record level of 7.8 million low-income, nutritionally at risk, Women Infants and Children (WIC) participants; and, an average of 29 million school children each day in the School Lunch program. The budget also includes a $2 billion contingency reserve for food stamps and a $150 million contingency reserve for WIC to be available to cover unanticipated increases in participation on these programs.

Expanding Agricultural Trade and Supporting International Food Assistance Programs:

The FY2004 budget continues a strong commitment to export promotion and foreign market development efforts by proposing $6.2 billion in spending. This represents an 18 percent increase or $961 million in additional spending since FY2001. Included is funding for USDA’s market development programs, including the Market Access and Cooperator Programs, which are increased by $15 million.

The budget establishes a new, centralized fund of $6.6 million to support important, crosscutting trade issues, compliance monitoring, dispute resolution, and biotechnology activities within the Department. A program level of $4.2 billion is provided for CCC export credit guarantee activities. Nearly $1.6 billion is requested for U.S. foreign food assistance activities, including $50 million for the new McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program.

Increasing Housing Opportunities and Investment in Rural America:

The administration proposes spending $11.9 billion for rural development programs. The budget supports the president’s homeownership initiative, particularly for minority families with a 50 percent increase for single-family housing. Nearly $4.1 billion is requested for direct and guaranteed Section 502 single family housing loans, compared to a current estimate of $2.8 billion for FY2003.

The president’s budget will provide 49,000 new homeownership opportunities for low- and moderate-income families in rural areas. The water and waste disposal program is maintained at its FY2003 level of $1.5 billion. The budget proposes $196 million for broadband loans and loan guarantees to rural telecommunications providers in FY2004, building upon a $1.4 billion program developed over the past two years.

Strengthening Forest Health and Firefighting Capabilities:

The FY2004 budget proposes $4.9 billion for U.S. Forest Service programs. The budget includes the highest level ever requested for fire suppression and dramatically increases efforts to improve forest health through the President’s Healthy Forests Initiative. Approximately $1.57 billion is requested for the National Fire Plan, an increase of $173 million over FY 2003. The Forest Legacy Program is funded at $91 million, a $21 million increase over 2003, and represents a $61 million increase since FY2000.

Improving Departmental Services and Systems:

The budget supports the Department’s strategic plan and supports several management initiatives to better integrate computer systems and technology to provide employees and customers the necessary tools to efficiently operate and deliver services.

The budget includes $178 million in FY2004, an increase of $45 million, to upgrade technology in its county service centers. Most of the increase in funding will be used to provide Geographic Information System (GIS) technologies to these offices, allowing farmers and ranchers more access to satellite mapping and planting information. County service centers are located throughout the U.S. and utilized by producers and other constituents to receive vital programs and services administered by USDA.

In addition, the budget supports funding of $800,000 for the new assistant secretary for civil rights.

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com