USDA’s plan to spend $1.4 billion to pay for a new export promotion program will provide the increase in market development funding that commodity groups have been trying to get through the farm bill, says Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.

The USDA funding, which will be provided via the Commodity Credit Corporation, would essentially continue the Agricultural Trade Promotion program begun during the Trump administration to diversify trade away from China.

“That level of funding is going to be so helpful to our farmers,” Stabenow said Tuesday of USDA's $1.4 billion plan. “That funding will allow us to double the spending on trade market access programs for the next five years … which is what our farmers are asking for.”

Farm groups and lawmakers had been hoping to double funding in the 2023 farm bill for the Market Access Program (MAP) and the Foreign Market Development Program (FMD) – two programs that have long supported farm groups seeking to open new international markets or expand existing ones, but doubt has been growing that farm bill negotiators will be able to get the money needed to do that.

Funding authority for MAP and FMD expires Sept. 30, although money can continue flowing to approved projects through the rest of the year. 

Stabenow said she hadn’t seen the USDA letter to the Senate and House Appropriations Committees detailing the CCC spending plan, but she stressed to reporters that the proposed level is just what she wanted.

Agri-Pulse reported Friday that USDA, reacting to a request from Stabenow and Sen. John Boozman, informed the House and Senate Appropriations committees it intended to use CCC to pay $1.379 billion for an ATP-like program that it’s calling the Regional Agricultural Promotion Program, or RAPP. USDA said it will also use $1.06 billion of CCC funds to pay for international commodity-based food aid. 

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Glenn “GT” Thompson told Agri-Pulse Tuesday that he had seen the USDA letter and that he was pleased to see more money for ag marketing and humanitarian aid. But he stressed he’s not happy about the circumvention of Congress when it comes to funding government programs.

“You know, this is about the balance of power and the checks and balances,” he said and added that CCC spending that’s not directly approved by Congress “further creates a slippery slope of us not operating the way we're supposed to by the Constitution.”

In the letter, USDA tells appropriators, “The Regional Agricultural Trade Promotion Program … will target activities toward countries indicating increased demand for high quality and high value agricultural products while helping … to ensure that the work started with the existing Agricultural Trade Promotion program … can continue,” according to a source who viewed a copy of the document. “Under the previous administration, $300 million of CCC funds are expected to be exhausted by the end of fiscal year 2024." 

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Stabenow said Tuesday that USDA’s agreement to use CCC funding will take a lot of budget pressure off as she continues to negotiate the five-year blueprint for U.S. ag policy.

Funding for MAP and FMD have been set at $200 million and $34.5 million, respectively for more than 15 years.

And it’s not just MAP and FMD that the new RAPP funding would augment. Included in the plans for the $1.379 billion is support for “technical assistance for specialty crops to reinvigorate efforts to diversify export markets.”

Congress created USDA’s Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops, or TASC, program in 2002 to counter foreign sanitary and phytosanitary barriers to U.S. exports, according to an analysis published by the American Seed Trade Association. 

Some ag groups that have been using ATP are already anxious to see the funds flow.

The Washington Apple Commission, which got nearly $10 million in ATP funding to launch a new variety of apple overseas, will have exhausted its program money by June 2024, said Lindsey Huber, international marketing manager for the group.

“It’s been a fantastic program for us,” Huber said. “We’ve been able to really do a lot of activities that we didn’t have the budget for … If and when there’s additional funding for ATP, we would definitely be interested.”

Hannah Lindoff, senior director of global marketing and strategy for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, said ATP funds were crucial in the group’s efforts to recover from losing much of the Chinese market for salmon, whitefish, crab and other commodities after China levied retaliatory duties.

The group was able to set up a new office in Thailand and spread its promotions throughout Southeast Asia with ATP funds. Alaskan seafood exports to Thailand were $97 million in 2018, before the ATP-funded outreach, but rose to $140 million in 2022, she said.

“We are diversifying,” Lindoff said. “It’s a lot of work … We are very, very, very, very interested in this funding source.”

Kirk Satterfield, a Mississippi rice farmer and chair of the USA Rice Federation, said the group is enthusiastic about both the marketing and food aid components of the USDA plan.

"USA Rice applauds USDA in taking this action to provide additional resources toward international trade promotion efforts, following on the heels of the wildly successful ATP Program,” he told Agri-Pulse in a statement. “Additionally, recognizing that India’s rice export ban contributed to global food insecurity, the U.S. is more than prepared to help fill that void with in-kind rice shipments this year.” 

USDA, in the letter to the Senate and House Appropriations Committees that proposes $1.06 billion in CCC funds to “address global hunger through in-kind donations,” says "U.S. agricultural stakeholders are eager to assist in addressing hunger that continues in some parts of the world due to conflict, droughts and other challenges. USDA proposes to use surplus commodities to (meet) their many needs.”

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