Congressional leaders reached agreement on a massive year-end bill that would provide $3.7 billion in disaster aid for farmers and enact a modified version of the Growing Climate Solutions Act to facilitate agricultural carbon markets.

Other provisions attached to the 4,155-page fiscal 2023 spending bill released early Tuesday include $250 million in aid to rice producers and $100 million to cotton merchandisers. The bill also includes a reauthorization measure for the pesticide registration process at EPA. 

The top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, John Boozman of Arkansas, said the legislation would "close the loop on several outstanding ag and nutrition concerns," including the climate measure, aid to rice growers and an expansion of child nutrition benefits. 

The disaster funding would cover crop and livestock losses due to drought and other problems this year. USDA also would get $27 million for the Emergency Forest Reserve Program and  $925 million for the Emergency Watershed Protection Program.    

The bill specifies that the $3.7 billion in disaster aid is for losses “of revenue, quality or production losses of crops (including milk, on-farm stored commodities, crops prevented from planting in 2022, and harvested adulterated wine grapes), trees, bushes, and vines, as a consequence of droughts, wildfires, hurricanes, floods, derechos, excessive heat, tornadoes, winter storms, freeze, including a polar vortex, smoke exposure, and excessive moisture.” 

Missing from the bill are any farm labor reforms. Farm groups failed to convince Republican leaders to include elements of the House-passed Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which would have expanded the H-2A program and provided a path to legal status for domestic workers. Republicans objected to legalizing existing workers.    

The House and Senate must get the legislation to President Joe Biden's desk before the weekend in order to avert a government shutdown. A stopgap spending bill expires Friday. The new Congress begins Jan. 3.               

The Growing Climate Solutions Act, which would authorize USDA to oversee the registration of farm technical advisers and carbon-credit verification services, was paired with the SUSTAINS Act, a House bill that would allow corporations and other private entities to contribute funding for conservation projects and authorize USDA to match the donations.  

Including the two measures "affirms Congress’s support for programs and projects to promote climate-smart agricultural practices that are voluntary, science-based, and incentive-focused," said Chuck Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives.

The Growing Climate Solutions Act passed the Senate 92-8 in June 2021, but it was revamped at the insistence of the top Republican on the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson of Pennsylvania. The Senate bill would have authorized USDA to set up a self-certification program for technical advisers and credit verifiers. 

Under the final version, USDA would be authorized to set up and enforce a registration list for those services. USDA would be empowered to remove entities from the registration list if they fail to meet program standards. The final text also rolls back USDA's role in determining eligible protocols for determining eligibility for credits. USDA would still be required to maintain a list of "widely accepted" protocols. 

A congressional aide said allowing farm advisers and credit verifiers to claim USDA “certification” could have provided them with an implicit endorsement that wasn’t warranted while enabling them to charge farmers higher fees. 

The legislation also would require USDA to appoint an advisory council for the registration program. Representatives of farmers, ranchers and private forest owners would control more than half the seats, but the council also would include representatives of USDA, EPA and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. 

Including the SUSTAINS Act in the package was a victory for Thompson; the measure would allow private donors to direct where their money is used and authorize USDA to provide up to 75% in matching funds. 

The omnibus also would reauthorize the Pesticide Registration Improvement Act, which imposes fees for maintenance and registration of active ingredients. PRIA has broad support among both industry and environmental groups who are actively involved in implementation of the program, which partially funds EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs.

The reauthorized legislation, known as PRIA 5, would boost registration and maintenance fees 30% and allow EPA to raise fees by 5% in 2024 and 2026.

The reauthorized law also would phase in, over eight years, a requirement that pesticide labels be available in Spanish. The Center for Biological Diversity submitted a petition in May seeking bilingual labels. 

In addition, PRIA 5 would require EPA to perform a workforce assessment of OPP and authorize $7.5 million in farmworker education grants. 

Reauthorizing the registration process this year clears the way for the House and Senate Agriculture committees to concentrate on writing a new farm bill in 2023. 

Here is a look at other provisions of the bill, including the $1.7 trillion in FY23 appropriations:

Commodity assistance: Rice growers largely missed out on the increase in market prices than many other producers have seen this year, and the $250 million in payments are designed to compensate for that. USDA would determine payment rates based on yield history and acreage. 

According to USDA’s Economic Research Service, revenue from rice fell from $3.5 billion in 2021 to $3.2 billion this year, when adjusted for inflation. Wheat revenue jumped more than 15% this year and corn revenue rose by 20%. 

USDA would provide $100 million in payments to cotton merchandisers to make up for losses related to the pandemic or supply chain disruptions. USDA earlier provided $80 million in aid to textile mills and other cotton users.  

A letter that House Agriculture Committee Chairman David Scott, D-Ga., sent to USDA in mid-2021 estimated that cotton merchandisers had already lost $700 million due to the market problems. 

Child nutrition: To ensure low-income kids have enough to eat during the summer when school is out, USDA would make permanent a summer EBT program to provide up to $40 a month per child. The provision would allow grab-and-go or home delivery of meals to kids in rural areas as an alternative to meals in group settings. 

The nutrition aid was paid for by ending in February an emergency allotment of benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

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Although many states have already stopped providing the additional SNAP benefits, ending the emergency allotment nationwide would save an estimated $13.4 billion, according to congressional staff. Authorization for the emergency allotment is currently tied to a public health emergency declaration for COVID-19.

“We know too often children who are able to get healthy meals in school go hungry during the summer. This investment is a critical step to ending childhood hunger," said Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.

Agricultural research: Funding would be increased by $175 million over fiscal 2022 to $3.45 billion in FY23, which started Oct. 1. The Agricultural Research Service, USDA’s in-house research arm, would get $1.74 billion, a $111 million increase over FY22. 

The National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which funds research at land grant universities and other institutions, would receive $1.7 billion, a $64 million increase over FY22. Some $455 million would be earmarked for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, and another $50 million would go to the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program.

Rural development: USDA's ReConnect loan and grant program for rural broadband would get $348 million for fiscal 2023. ReConnect was funded at $487 million for FY22 and received another $2 billion in the 2021 infrastructure law.

USDA's Business and Industry loan program would be funded at $1.8 billion, a 45% increase over FY22. 

EPA enforcement: EPA would be funded at $10.1 billion for FY23, an increase of $576 million over FY22. The FY23 budget includes an increase of $72 million for the agency’s enforcement and compliance programs. 

EPA’s regional restoration programs, including initiatives for the Chesapeake Bay and Great Lakes, would get $681.7 million in FY23, an increase of $94.5 million over FY22. 

Land management: The Forest Service, part of USDA, would get $3.9 billion for non-wildland fire management work, a $222 million increase over FY22. The additional funding is intended to "radically improve forest restoration and fire risk reduction efforts and to increase year-round staffing to carry out this work. The bill increases hazardous fuels reduction projects to $207 million to allow the Forest Service to treat more of the highest-risk acre," according to a Senate summary of the bill. 

The Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management would get a 5.9% funding increase to $1.5 billion. The BLM funding includes $81 million for sage-grouse conservation and $34 million for threatened and endangered species. 

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