October Policy Update

October 2021

By Patty Lovera, Policy Director

Congress Debates Infrastructure and Climate Policy

In September, Congress continued to debate a plan to invest in the nation’s roads, bridges, public transit systems, broadband internet, energy grid and water systems through a bipartisan infrastructure package, as well as a second bill with funding for social programs, agriculture and addressing climate change. This second package is a “budget reconciliation” bill that uses a special procedure and can be passed only with Democratic votes. (This process can only be used a limited number of times and is supposed to be limited to funding existing government programs. It was used earlier this year to pass the American Rescue Plan to address economic impacts of the pandemic.)

The debate among Democrats about the budget reconciliation bill has been contentious, and the size of the full package is still unclear. The original proposal totaled $3.5 trillion and would include a big increase in funding for organic research as well as a historic $28 billion increase (over 10 years) for USDA conservation programs including the Conservation Security Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, with a focus on addressing climate change. The package also included a new program to forgive USDA farm loans for some small farms. But it seems clear that the reconciliation package will end up being significantly smaller than the original proposal, and we don’t yet know whether these cuts will be applied evenly to every program funded in the original bill or if certain programs will be reduced more. After failing to reach an agreement on the size of the reconciliation package at the end of September, the Democratic congressional leadership extended the timeline for negotiations to continue until the end of October. The current plan is that the House will vote on both the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the reconciliation package once there is an agreement on the reconciliation package. (The Senate has already passed the infrastructure bill.)

In addition to the drama over these two massive bills, Congress had to deal with an urgent deadline for keeping the federal government running as we entered the new fiscal year on October 1. Because they have not completed the process of passing the appropriations (or spending) bills that set funding levels for federal agencies like the USDA, Congress had to pass a “continuing resolution” to keep the government running with last year’s spending levels to avoid a government shutdown. This extension runs until early December, when Congress with either have to pass another extension or complete the appropriations bills for the rest of this fiscal year. The House has passed its version of the USDA appropriations bill, but the full Senate has not yet voted on the USDA’s bill. Both versions of the bill would increase funding for the National Organic Program, with instructions to emphasize enforcement of organic standards and organic research as well as urging the USDA to fix the reimbursement levels for organic certification cost share.

Pandemic Assistance for Farmers and Food Businesses

The USDA has launched a new program called the Pandemic Response and Safety Grant Program will give grants to food processors, distributors, farmers markets, and producers to respond to coronavirus, including for measures to protect workers. Funding requests may range from $1,500 to $20,000, and small businesses and non-profit organizations will be the focus of the first round of funding, with medium sized businesses becoming eligible in the second round. Approximately $650 million is available for grants for costs incurred between January 27, 2020 and December 31, 2021. Grants will cover the activities associated with workplace safety (including PPE), developing online platforms, retrofitting facilities, increasing worker transportation services, providing worker housing or medical service to deal with Covid-19. You can get more details on these grants here. The application closes on November 8th.

Advocating for Organic Dairy Farmers in the Northeast

This summer, Horizon Organic, which is owned by Danone, notified 89 organic dairy farmers in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and the northern part of New York that they would not be renewing their contract to buy their milk after next September. Danone is blaming logistics and trucking issues for their decision to drop these farmers from their routes. But there are other issues in the organic marketplace are part of this story – especially USDA’s failure to update and enforce key organic standards for dairy cows such as enforcement of the pasture standards and long overdue updates to the Origin of Livestock rule to stop the continuous cycling of animals in and out of organic on large operations. In the absence of USDA upholding high standards for organic dairy operations, larger operations in the Midwest and West have gotten into the organic market, undercutting producers in the Northeast especially.

OFA is working with regional organic farm organizations and the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance to pressure USDA to strengthen the organic standards and to help identify other marketing options for the impacted dairy operations. Agriculture Secretary Vilsack convened a meeting last week to discuss the situation and gave the update that the USDA’s National Organic Program is working on a revised version of the Origin of Livestock proposed rule that could be completed in early 2022.