USDA is awarding commodity groups the first $300 million in trade promotion grants under a $1.2 billion initiative known as the Regional Agricultural Promotion Program and funded through the department’s Commodity Credit Corporation spending authority.

The grants to 66 organizations, which were selected from $1 billion in proposals, are intended to supplement funding provided through the farm bill’s Market Access Program and Foreign Market Development program. The projects announced Tuesday are focused on building new markets for U.S. ag exports in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.

“We remain committed to our established customer base around the world, but we're also setting our sights on new growth opportunities in places like Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia, where opportunities are significant and where US exporters may not have yet established a firm foothold,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack during a briefing on the grants.

“These are parts of the world where the GDP is rising. middle classes are expanding. urban populations are growing, and retail food systems are becoming more modern. All of this, we believe, creates a demand for greater variety of high-quality food and foreign products, which the U.S. can produce.”

Vilsack noted that 60% of U.S. ag exports currently go to China, Mexico, Canada and the European Union.

The RAPP awardees include The Cranberry Institute, which will use its $1 million grant to conduct trade education seminars aimed at boosting sales in India, Brazil, Colombia and Southeast Asia, and the Hazelnut Marketing Board, which is getting $455,000 to conduct market research and trade missions in Africa, according to a USDA press release.

The U.S. Dairy Export Council also plans to target Africa with its $10 million RAPP grant, while the U.S. Meat Export Federation plan for its $21 million grant includes efforts to increase convenience store sales in South Korea, Central America and Colombia.

The American Soybean Association received the largest grant, worth $28.5 million, followed by the U.S. Meat Export Federation. Cotton Council International is getting the third largest amount at $19 million, followed by the Food Export USA Northeast at $17.5 million, and the U.S. Grains Council at $17 million.

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The announcement comes two days before the House Agriculture Committee is expected to vote on a Republican farm bill that would double funding for MAP and FMD, with the cost offset by savings from restricting the projected growth of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. The SNAP cut crosses a red line for Democrats, making it unlikely to get enacted in this Congress. 

Vilsack told reporters the cut in projected nutrition spending runs counter to last year's debt ceiling agreement. The bill would restrict future USDA updates of the Thrifty Food Plan, the model of eating costs used to set SNAP benefits.

The bill also would suspend the CCC’s Section 5 authority that Vilsack is using to fund the trade initiative. Vilsack noted that Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and the committee’s ranking Republican, John Boozman of Arkansas, requested he tap the CCC to fund trade promotion efforts as well as international food aid. The request came last year as it appeared work on a new farm bill was stalled with little hope for an imminent increase in MAP and FMD funding.

“It's been terrific to see that we are all on the same page in terms of a vision of how we continue to support and grow our farmers and ranchers, our agricultural economy,” Stabenow said during the briefing with Vilsack.

Vilsack told reporters it would be a mistake for Congress to cancel USDA’s Section 5 authority.

“We've used it in a very strategic and surgical-like method to address specific needs at specific times, and to create new and expanding opportunities for producers,” he said.

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