WASHINGTON, May 19, 2016 - The Senate’s agriculture spending bill that advanced Thursday would provide supplemental payments to farmers who believe they have been shortchanged by the Agriculture Risk Coverage program that was created by the 2014 farm bill. 

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., proposed the provision for the supplemental payments. It would provide up to $5 million that USDA’s Farm Service Agency could use in a temporary program for farmers who missed out on ARC payments that were made to neighbors in adjacent counties. 

The fiscal 2017 agriculture spending bill, which the Senate Appropriations Committee approved 30-0, also would mandate labeling of biotech salmon and roll back USDA’s proposed new requirements for convenience stores that participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. 

The full Senate is not expected to debate the bill before June. The legislation funds USDA and the Food and Drug Administration.

Hoeven’s ARC provision would cap spending on the supplemental county-based ARC payments at $5 million, the estimated cost of the subsidies. The bill would set up an alternative way of calculating ARC payments, based on yields in contiguous counties. It would also require USDA to designate states that could participate in the pilot program. If the spending cap is exceeded, the payments would be pro-rated. 

“It’s a very important fix in making sure that farmers are treated fair,” said Hoeven. 

But USDA issued a statement saying the department was “still evaluating the pilot program included in the language to determine how, if signed into law, we would administer the pilot." There is no similar provision in the House version of the bill.

The provision was contained in a manager’s amendment along with the provision targeting USDA’s proposed SNAP retailer rule, which increases the types of foods that stores must offer to participate in the nutrition program.

In a statement, USDA said it was “extremely disappointed” with the measure, estimating that the requirements would impose a one-time cost of only $140 on stores. “The rule has always been about increasing access and choices of healthier food for low-income Americans and is an opportunity to help our most vulnerable.”
 The committee largely sidestepped a heated battle within the organic industry over USDA’s proposed new requirements for organic livestock and poultry. The rule would, among other things, force organic egg producers to allow their hens to roam outside, not just in enclosed, covered porches, as is now a common practice. 
The bill includes language urging USDA to consider the concerns of producers, but the legislation wouldn’t stop USDA from moving forward with the rule. The chairman of the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said that the issue can be addressed during negotiations with the House, “if we can develop a consensus.” 

The committee adopted the biotech salmon labeling requirement, proposed by Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, on a voice vote. “The assurances from FDA about the safety (of biotech salmon) have not been sufficient to allay the concerns,” said Murkowski. 

Additionally, the committee agreed to maintain the existing ban on USDA inspection of horse slaughter. 

The legislation also would increase the Food and Drug Administration’s funding for implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) by more than the White House requested, and would fund a new Foreign Agricultural Service office in Cuba, a priority for Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. 

Funding for FSMA is a top issue for state agriculture departments and other agencies that will be responsible for much of the inspections required by a series of new rules. The Senate bill would increase FSMA funding for the budget year that starts Oct. 1 by $40.2 million, $15 million more than President Obama requested. The House version contains an increase of $33 million.

The extra amounts in the Senate and House bills still aren't enough, according to the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, which estimates that states will need $100 million per year to enforce the new regulations on fruit and vegetable growers and food and feed processors. 

“While this installment is important, incremental increases forestall full implementation of FSMA (from) reaching the preventive protection of our food supply envisioned when the law was passed,” NASDA said. 

 The bill also would fund another administration priority -- on-farm monitoring of antibiotic resistance -- at $5 million. The research, which will be conducted by USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, is a key part of the White House strategy for combating antibiotic resistance. 

The bill would boost agriculture research and fund new incentives for military veterans to go into farming. Vilsack’s office would get $5 million for outreach to veterans and $2.5 million would go to the Food and Agriculture Resilience Program for Military Veterans (FARM-Vets) under the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The bill also would waive Farm Service Agency loan application fees for veterans.

The Agriculture and Food Research Initiative would receive $375 million, a $25 million increase. The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program would be increased by $2.3 million.