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Chicken Farmers Thought Trump Was Going to Help Them. Then His Administration Did the Opposite.

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When Weaver bought his farm, he expected the income from his chicken houses would help him afford a little more land and supplement his retirement. Instead, he said, everything he earned from the chicken operation had to go back into new investments that the processing company required. (Annie Flanagan, special to ProPublica)

The Agriculture Department is barely enforcing regulations on big meat companies.

By late 2016, many of the nation’s 25,000 chicken farmers said they had grown bitterly frustrated by the administration of President Barack Obama.

Under Obama, top officials had promised to help farmers by tightening regulations on meat processing companies, which for decades had been growing bigger and more powerful. The industry consolidation extended to beef, dairy and pork as well as poultry, but the Obama administration was particularly concerned about the effects on farmers who raise chickens on contract for giants such as Tyson Foods and Pilgrim’s Pride.

Farmers complained that they had been lured into the business with rosy profit projections only to discover that the processing companies — which they depend on for supplies of chicks and feed — could suddenly change their contract terms to impose additional costs or drop them for any reason.

By the time the Obama administration finally pushed through the rules meant to address these problems in December 2016, Donald Trump, a Republican, had won the White House, backed by many farmers who said they had been let down by Obama, a Democrat.

Now, some say their expectation that Trump would be different may have been misplaced.

Over the last two years, Trump appointees have not only reversed the regulations put in place at the end of Obama’s presidency, they have retreated from enforcing the preexisting rules. The Trump administration dissolved the office charged with policing meat companies for cheating and defrauding farmers. Fines for breaking the rules dropped to $243,850 in 2018, less than 10% of what they were five years earlier.

“The chicken company cost me my ability to feed my children and pay our bills,” said Tony Grigsby, a retired cop in Alabama who recently quit chicken farming. Grigsby identifies as a Republican and enthusiastically supported Trump, but he said he wished Trump hadn’t scrapped Obama’s regulations. “I hear the president saying he’s doing things for the American farmer,” he said, “but it’s almost like it’s only a certain percentage.”

The White House declined to respond to questions about its decisions related to the meat industry, and the USDA declined to provide an interview with the top enforcement official. A USDA spokesman said the agency “is committed to supporting the president’s commitment to reprioritize spending and redefine the proper role of the federal government.”

The National Chicken Council, which represents the big chicken companies, has cheered the Trump administration’s rollback of the proposed regulations, saying the rules would have cost the industry — and, by extension, consumers — billions of dollars.

“Companies have waiting lists of potential farmers that want to partner with them to raise birds,” Tom Super, a spokesman for the trade group, said.

The administration’s moves underscore its ties with the meat industry. One of the largest donations supporting Trump during the campaign was a $2 million super PAC contribution from a poultry magnate, and several industry stalwarts took positions with the Trump transition team or in the Agriculture Department.

The administration’s siding with big meat companies over small farmers is already becoming campaign fodder for Trump’s opponents. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have vowed to restore the Obama-era regulations and dust off atrophied antitrust laws to break up big meat companies. The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, is promoting the creation of an independent agriculture regulator, akin to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Weaver at his farm in West Virginia. (Annie Flanagan, special to ProPublica)

Chicken farmers who considered themselves staunch Trump supporters say their worsening circumstances since he took office are making them reconsider their votes. Mike Weaver, a West Virginia farmer, said he gave up raising chickens this year after the company wanted him to waive his right to sue — something the Obama administration’s rules would have prevented.

“I made excuses for him for a while, thinking he’s going to eventually get a grasp on the dire situation small family farmers are in,” Weaver said of Trump. “It hasn’t happened yet. If it doesn’t happen by the next election, I’m going to tell everybody some of the promises he made were never kept and I don’t see it changing.”


The main law regulating meatpackers was passed almost a century ago after a Federal Trade Commission investigation found that five companies had a stranglehold over the country’s meat supply and used it to fix prices, crush competition and defraud farmers and consumers.

The Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921 prohibited meatpackers from engaging in unfair and deceptive practices, manipulating prices, creating monopolies or giving undue preference to particular people, businesses or places. The law’s scope expanded over the next several decades to apply to livestock dealers, live poultry dealers, swine contractors and other related businesses.

Eventually, however, courts, the Justice Department, the FTC and the USDA softened their stance on consolidation. From 1986 to 2016, the top four companies’ market share rose from 55% to 84% in beef processing, 33% to 66% in pork, and 34% to 50% in chicken, according to USDA data. Counting the fifth-largest chicken company, the top firms control 61% of the market.

The industry says consolidation has improved productivity, allowing the U.S. to grow more food using less land and labor.

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Congressional Research Service

But another upshot of these changes is that the five biggest chicken companies — Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s Pride, Sanderson Farms, Perdue Farms and Koch Foods — exert “such comprehensive control” over the contractors who raise chickens for them that the Small Business Administration’s inspector general said these farmers should no longer qualify as independent small businesses. (The SBA hasn’t decided whether to follow that recommendation.)

Chicken companies contract with local farmers to raise and care for birds for several weeks until they’re ready for slaughter. The farmers bear the cost of housing the birds, equipment and fuel. The companies, in addition to delivering chicks and feed, rank the farmers based on how plump their birds get and pay accordingly. This so-called “tournament system” rewards the most efficient producers, the companies argue, but farmers say the companies control key variables, such as who receives the healthiest chicks and the most nutritious feed, and, thus, who comes out on top.

One clear indicator of companies’ growing leverage over farmers: Farmers’ average pay rose by just 2.5 cents a pound from 1988 to 2016, while the wholesale price of chicken increased by 17.4 cents a pound, data from the USDA and the National Chicken Council shows.

In the early years of the Obama administration, top officials visited farmers in Iowa, Alabama and Wisconsin — places where the Tea Party backlash was giving Democrats trouble with white working-class voters — and promised help to those who said the system was rigged against them.

“This is a top priority for today’s Department of Justice,” Attorney General Eric Holder told the crowd in an auditorium at Alabama A&M University in May 2010.

Weaver spoke at a hearing that the Justice and Agriculture departments held in Alabama in 2010. He spent hundreds of hours rallying support and contacting lawmakers about the Obama administration’s proposed regulations on meat companies. (Annie Flanagan, special to ProPublica)

Farmers at the Alabama meeting detailed how chicken companies dictated contract terms and how they were powerless to resist, even if the terms were financially ruinous.

“Either I sign it or I ain’t got no chickens,” Garry Staples from Steele, Alabama, said at the hearing. “Without any chickens, I can’t pay any bills. I can’t pay my mortgage because chicken houses are designed for one thing: grow chickens.”

Staples said he was risking his livelihood just to be there, since the companies were known to use the tournament system to punish farmers who spoke out. Some farmers read messages on behalf of others who were too afraid to come.

The Justice Department’s top antitrust enforcer, Christine Varney, told Staples she would have his back. “Mr. Staples, let me say, I fully expect you will not experience retaliation by virtue of your presence today,” Varney said at the hearing. “But if you do, you call me at this number because I want to know about it.” The audience clapped and cheered. (When Staples tried to call Varney a few years later, he discovered she’d left the Justice Department for a partnership at the law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore. She declined to comment.)

Ultimately, the meetings and promises didn’t lead to action by the Justice Department. In 2012, the Antitrust Division issued a 24-page report summarizing farmers’ concerns but concluding that many, or possibly most, of them “fall outside the purview of the antitrust laws.”

The USDA, however, proposed regulations in June 2010 designed to address many of the chicken farmers’ chief complaints. The rules would clarify prohibited practices, such as retaliating against farmers and terminating their contracts without notice. They would make it easier for farmers to sue, without their having to show that companies were harming competition across the industry, an almost impossibly high bar to clear. And they would restrict chicken companies from using the tournament system to mislead farmers about their projected income or to favor some farmers over others by providing unequal quality of chicks and feed.

“The rules addressed fraud, bad faith, retaliation and denial of due process,” said Dudley Butler, a Mississippi lawyer who helped develop the new rules in the USDA during the Obama administration.


The meat industry opposed the proposed regulations and lobbied Congress to block them. Meatpackers spend more than $4 million a year on lobbying, and the top recipient of their campaign contributions in the 2014 House elections was Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican who led the agriculture appropriations subcommittee. The House Appropriations Committee also included Steve Womack, an Arkansas Republican whose district is home to Tyson Foods, the biggest chicken company.

When annual funding bills made their way through Kingston’s and Womack’s panels, lawmakers inserted a prohibition against USDA staff spending any time to work on finishing the regulations. Republicans on the Appropriations Committee said the rules would “allow harmful government interference in the private market for the livestock and poultry industry.”

Spokespeople for Womack and Kingston didn’t answer requests for comment. Kingston retired from Congress in 2015 and became a lobbyist.

With Congress barring the USDA from working on the regulations, the Obama administration could not put them into effect. At a 2014 meeting with farmers who supported the regulations, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told them they’d been outgunned by the industry. “You don’t have enough horses,” Vilsack said, according to two people present: Joe Maxwell, executive director of the Organization for Competitive Markets, a populist advocacy group for farmers; and Chris Petersen, a hog farmer from Clear Lake, Iowa. Vilsack didn’t respond to requests for comment. (He’s now head of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, which did not have a position on the regulations.)

Since Trump took office, the Agriculture Department has scaled back enforcing rules against meat processing companies that cheat and defraud farmers. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

Just before Obama left office, Congress stopped preventing the USDA from working on the regulations (in part because of public outcry over a television segment by the comedian John Oliver). The Obama administration raced to finish the regulations before Trump’s inauguration.

In December 2016, the USDA released a watered-down version of its 2010 proposal. The agency published an interim final rule on making it easier for farmers to sue. The agency also proposed a rule spelling out deceptive practices and another against using the tournament system to treat farmers unequally. But under the legal process for implementing new regulations, these rules couldn’t take effect for several more months. That left them vulnerable to being changed by the incoming administration.


After doing away with the Obama administration’s interim final rule and proposed rules, the Trump administration says it will propose a new regulation this summer. The USDA has been holding talks with industry groups to discuss the new policy. Farmers and their advocates fear the new regulations could be even more favorable to big meat companies than the status quo, according to Steve Etka, who lobbies for small farmers. Some in the industry, though, say they hope the administration will ditch its rulemaking effort entirely.

“We’d love to see them do nothing,” Colin Woodall, a lobbyist for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said. “The action the secretary took to stop this is exactly what we wanted. We believe the USDA’s efforts are better focused on implementing and enforcing the Packers and Stockyards Act as it exists.”

But that’s not happening either. The staff in the office responsible for enforcing the law has dwindled to 137, from 166 in 2010. In 2017, the most recent data available, the office finished 1,873 investigations, down from 2,588 in 2012. The office suspended five people and companies for violating the Packers and Stockyards Act in 2017, down from 34 in 2013.

Source: USDA
* The 2018 figure is based on preliminary case data on the USDA’s website. The final tally is not yet available. (Source: USDA)

The USDA declined to allow ProPublica to interview Stuart Frank, director of the Packers and Stockyards Division. In a statement, the department said compliance varies over time depending on economic conditions, and penalties depend on severity and the violator’s “ability to pay and stay in business.”

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue also has eliminated the enforcement office as an independent administration within the USDA, moving it under the Agricultural Marketing Service, the branch of USDA whose primary mission is facilitating sales for big agriculture companies. In a memo, he described the reorganization as “Improving Industry Engagement.”

“That’s outrageous,” said Weaver, the West Virginia farmer who spoke at the 2010 Alabama hearing. “How’s the agency that supports the industry and helps them increase revenue going to put the guys out there to police those companies and make them do the right thing?”

Weaver started growing chickens 15 years ago, after retiring from being a special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He bought a farm in Fort Seybert, sheltered between Shenandoah National Park and the George Washington National Forest, expecting that the income from his chicken houses would help him afford a little more land and supplement his retirement. Instead, he said, everything he earned from the chicken operation had to go back into new investments that the company required in order to keep receiving flocks to raise.

Weaver dedicated hundreds of hours to rallying support and contacting lawmakers about the Obama administration’s proposed regulations. “I can’t tell you how disappointed we were,” he said. “Obama bowed to industry like all politicians. They made all kinds of promises and nothing was done.”

Weaver said he thought Trump would be different. He wasn’t another politician, he was a businessman. He said he would end business as usual in Washington and make things fair for the little guy. That was a big reason why Weaver voted for Trump.

Last year, Weaver received a new contract from the company he grew for, Pilgrim’s Pride, a subsidiary of JBS, the world’s largest meat company. The new contract required farmers to drop all legal claims against the company and forbade them from participating in class-action lawsuits.

Weaver wouldn’t accept that, since he is part of a federal lawsuit in Oklahoma alleging that Pilgrim’s Pride, Koch Foods, Tyson Foods, Sanderson Farms and Perdue Farms conspired to hurt farmers by fixing chicken prices. The companies said the farmers failed to demonstrate any illegal conduct. A judge has not yet ruled on whether the case can proceed.

The regulations proposed by the Obama administration would have prevented Pilgrim’s Pride from forcing Weaver to waive his litigation rights. But since those rules were blocked, Weaver was on his own.

Weaver crossed out the offending provisions and signed. Pilgrim’s Pride rejected it. A spokeswoman for JBS, which owns Pilgrim’s Pride, said farmers who opted out of the new contract could remain on the old contract. Weaver said he couldn’t afford to continue under the old contract, which paid less, so he had his last flock in January. He’s done with chicken farming.

“I miss it like a toothache,” he said.

But Weaver hasn’t given up on trying to get Trump’s attention. He wrote an open letter to Trump published on the website of Fox News, lamenting the decision to overturn the Obama administration’s regulations and asked Trump to uphold his campaign promises: “As farmers, with families who depend on us, we are dismayed by the move and we’re calling on President Trump to make good on his campaign pledge — to drain the swamp of big meat lobbyists who continue to cut bad deals that hurt rural economies and families.”

Weaver is still hoping to draw Trump’s attention to family farmers’ struggles. Otherwise, he said, “I’m going to tell everybody some of the promises he made were never kept and I don’t see it changing.”(Annie Flanagan, special to ProPublica)

Weaver also made a personal appeal to Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law. He met her at a July 2017 event in Washington with the U.S. Humane Society, since she is vocal about animal welfare. Weaver gave her a hat branded with his local association of chicken farmers and a note to the president. Lara Trump assured Weaver she would deliver the note, he said.

The Trump campaign, where Lara Trump is an adviser, didn’t answer requests for comment.

Weaver is still waiting to hear back from her, too.

This article was originally published by ProPublica.

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Agriculture

How A Grass Might Generate Fuel And Help Fix Damaged Mine Lands

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West Virginia University Professor Jeff Skousen among giant miscanthus on an old mine site. Photo: Brittany Patterson/Ohio Valley ReSource

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

Down bumpy back roads deep in central West Virginia, a flat, bright green pasture opens up among the rolling hills of coffee-colored trees.

Wildflowers and butterflies dot the pasture, but West Virginia University Professor Jeff Skousen is here for something else that stands above the rest of the Appalachian scenery – literally.

Thick stalks of green-yellowish grass reach up 10 feet into the air like a beanstalk out of a fairy tale, and Skousen is dwarfed by it.

“I just wish we could use these lands in a little bit more productive way,” WVU’s Skousen said. Photo: Brittany Patterson/Ohio Valley ReSource

“These plots I kind of know like my children,” he said. “But you see, you can’t hardly walk through this stuff – it’s worse than a jungle.”

Skousen and a team of graduate students have grown giant miscanthus for close to a decade here near Alton, West Virginia, a place that wasn’t always a pasture.

The site is one of numerous old surface coal mines across the Ohio Valley that was reclaimed, replacing the once barren ground with a layer of rocky topsoil.

The cumulative size of land impacted by strip mines across central Appalachia is roughly the size of the state of Delaware – roughly 1.5 million acres – according to a 2018 Duke University study.

This animation shows the expansion of surface mining’s footprint (displayed in yellow) from 1985 to 2015 for a 31,000 square kilometer sub-region of the study area in West Virginia and Kentucky and has county boundaries visible. Credit: SkyTruth

After land is reclaimed, it remains an open question of how to use these degraded lands, from faltering lavender farms to golf courses. But Skousen, also a land reclamation specialist at WVU, believes a potential answer might be in this towering grass.

While other agricultural crops struggle with the poor soil quality here from past mining, giant miscanthus thrives.

“We’ve never fertilized them. We’ve never done anything to them other than let them grow,” Skousen said. “Which demonstrates their ability to grow on marginal mine land areas at this kind of rate, every year.”

And that rate is rapid: for every two tons of grassy material a regular pasture produces, Skousen estimates miscanthus grows 10 to 12 tons. That grassy material is what is called biomass, which can be turned into value-added products like heating pellets, biofuels like ethanol and more.

A patch of miscanthus towers above other grasses on the former mine site. Photo: Brittany Patterson/Ohio Valley ReSource

“We could grow a crop like this and sell it to an ethanol producer or some other heating agent, and suddenly we have a sort of economy develop for an agricultural community,” Skousen said.

Skousen and other researchers see potential in giant miscanthus not only to create economic opportunity in Appalachia but to revitalize reclaimed strip mines and help reduce the emissions that cause climate change. Yet the commercial market for this “power plant” has yet to bloom, and some wonder whether it’s ultimately the best path for reclaimed mine land.

Root of the Matter

Ohio State University Professor Rattan Lal’s study of soil has spanned five decades and several countries.

“The health of soil, plants, animals and people is one and indivisible,” Lal said. “We need to reclaim these mine lands in one way or the other because they’re an important resource in terms of land area.”

He led a team of researchers in a recent three-year study to grow plots of miscanthus on a former strip mine near Zanesville, Ohio, and he also saw similar biomass growth. Yet the plant’s root system also intrigues Lal.

“At the same time, it sequesters carbon in the soil,” Lal said.

Carbon sequestration is the process of trapping and storing carbon emissions from the air to mitigate the effects of climate change. Lal said giant miscanthus is especially good at doing just that through sucking carbon through leaves and storing the carbon in roots.

“[Miscanthus] could become a sink for greenhouse gases … while at the same time produce biofuel, which is a substitute for fossil fuel,” Lal said. “Once it’s established, I think it should be a carbon-negative technology.”

Not only is there a potential benefit in combating climate change, but Lal said the soil quality could improve after several years, too, as microorganisms eat the extra stored carbon.

“The soil may be improved well enough that it could be used for other things such as corn or soybeans,” Lal said. “Coal mining was the source of emission gases. And now [miscanthus is] a solution. So that is to me, as an environmental researcher, even more critical than the money part.”

Efforts to make a profit from miscanthus in the Ohio Valley also date back a decade, but not all theses efforts were successful.

Aerial view of mountaintop removal in West Virginia. The “lake” in the center is a coal sludge waste impoundment. Credit: Vivian Stockman and Southwings

Unsteady Markets

Jeff Lowe believed he was at the cutting edge of a new industry when he launched his east Kentucky company Midwestern Biofuels LLC in 2009.

“What’s only being talked about in other places is being done right here,” Lowe told the Associated Press at the time, alongside former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear and other state officials.

His company had planned to recruit local farmers to grow hundreds of acres of miscanthus to be turned into pellets, which would then be mixed into coal-fired electricity plants in the Ohio Valley.

This machine at the defunct Midwestern Biofuels LLC created fuel pellets, out of miscanthus and other biomass, that could be burned for electricity. Credit: Midwestern Biofuels, LLC

He said several regional utility companies were interested, including Ohio-based FirstEnergy Corp.

First Energy announced in 2009 the utility planned to transition the coal-fired R.E. Burger Power Station in Shadyside, Ohio, to burn exclusively biomass to cut costs and meet state renewable energy regulations. Lowe said a contract was in the works to burn his miscanthus pellets there, but it ultimately fell through.

The company a year later changed directions and decided to retire the plant instead, citing falling electricity prices and falling demand from the 2008 recession. Lowe closed Midwestern Biofuels LLC in 2013.

“We had no sales. We go from having complete capacity from one of the plants to nothing, overnight,” Lowe said. “If you’re not required to do it, then you generally don’t do it.”

The relative lack of commercial appeal for miscanthus is a challenge that entrepreneurs and researchers alike are still trying to tackle.

One company in Ashtabula County, in northeast Ohio, Aloterra Energy, stopped making biofuels from miscanthus because it was too costly.

“You can’t store our stuff outside in pellets because it’ll take water on, and coal is often outside in the elements,” Aloterra Energy Co-founder Jon Griswold said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we looked at everything.”

Despite those initial market challenges, Aloterra Energy is now using miscanthus to make products including recyclable food packaging and industrial absorbents.

“This is a growth industry. It just takes so long for people to figure out what you’re doing and why they need to be involved,” Griswold said.

Burning Questions

Yet some environmental activists are skeptical regarding the biofuel potential of miscanthus.

Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a statewide progressive advocacy group, published a report in 2017 detailing how Kentucky could meet and go beyond the energy regulations put forth by the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which was repealed and replaced last month.

The plan specifically excluded burning biomass as a viable energy option, because the organization didn’t generally consider biomass a carbon-neutral resource.

KFTC member Cassa Herron said while she isn’t completely against the idea of miscanthus as a biofuel, how these emissions are potentially regulated is key.

“The devil’s in the details in how you regulate such activity,” Herron said. “What does burning anything do to our community? And then how are regulatory agencies set up on a level to minimize those impacts?”

KFTC in its reasoning against biomass cited research from Partnership for Policy Integrity, an environmental nonprofit that specializes in biomass policy.

PFPI President Mary Booth said the added fossil fuel costs could be significant in transporting miscanthus from remote reclaimed mine sites and turning it into biofuel or biomass pellets.

“It really does eat into the net carbon emissions. It can really increase the carbon footprint of a pellet made from miscanthus,” Booth said.

Jeff Skousen is well aware that biomass energy has carbon emissions, but he believes the benefits of miscanthus outweigh the potential negatives. And past research has shown the potential for miscanthus being at least carbon neutral — meaning the grass absorbs enough carbon dioxide into the soil to make up for carbon emissions when it’s burned.

Skousen has seen the decline of the coal industry the past decade and various efforts to use the land that’s left behind. Ultimately, he wants to see the potential of that land fulfilled.

“Land is a permanent resource. And it’s always here. Even if it wasn’t reclaimed exactly the way we want it for that post-mining land use, we can change it,” Skousen said. “I just wish we could use these lands in a little bit more productive way.”

ReSource reporter Brittany Patterson contributed to this story.

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House Budget Rejects Trump’s Proposed Cuts for Rural Programs

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Broken Bow Water Treatment Facility in Broken Bow, OK, on Thursday, April 9, 2015. Photo: Lance Cheung/USDA

The budget bill also blocks the Department of Agriculture from moving two research agencies from Washington, D.C., to the Kansas City region. But the Senate has yet to take up any budget legislation.

The budget the House of Representatives passed in June reverses billions of dollars in cuts to rural programs proposed by the Trump administration and halts the relocation to Kansas City of two Washington-based USDA research agencies.

But the Senate has yet to consider any of the 10 budget bills passed by the House this year. The upper chamber will be in session only six weeks between now and the end of the fiscal year on September 30, when the current spending plan expires.

The House budget calls for $155.3 billion in funding for the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), $3.2 billion more than the current USDA budget.

H.R. 3055 passed 227-194 in a partisan vote, with all Democrats but one (Representative Ben McAdams, D-Utah) voting in favor and all Republican representatives voting against the budget.

The chairman of the House agriculture appropriations subcommittee said the committee deals with issues that “touch the lives of every citizen on a daily basis.”

“This is why we rejected the administration’s draconian cuts to programs that assist our rural communities and vulnerable populations, and allocated more than $5.1 billion above the budget request, totaling $24.310 billion,” said Representative Sanford Bishop Jr. (D-Georgia).

The House budget includes many priorities sought by nutrition, farm and rural development advocates that were included in the 2018 Farm Bill.

“The House bill was praiseworthy for its inclusion of increases for sustainable agriculture research, food safety, local and regional food systems, training and outreach for beginning and socially disadvantaged, and other priority food and farm programs,” the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) stated.

The coalition’s funding priorities included an additional $5 million for the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, as well as $10 million for the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network above the levels included in the bill passed through the full Appropriations Committee.

H.R. 3055 includes $3.9 billion for rural development programs. Funding includes provisions for:

  • Rural infrastructure – The legislation includes $1.45 billion for rural water and waste program loans, as well as more than $655 million in water and waste grants. The House budget includes an additional $6.9 billion in loan authority for rural electric and telephone infrastructure loans.
  • Rural broadband – The House budget expands rural broadband funding by $680 million.
  • Rural housing–The bill includes $24 billion in loan authority for the Single Family Housing Guaranteed Loan Program and $1 billion in direct single family housing loans. Additionally, the House budget includes nearly $1.4 billion in rental assistance for low-income rural residents in need of affordable housing.

The House appropriations bill includes numerous specific provisions that oppose Trump administration changes to current USDA policies and procedures. Most notably, the House bill includes language that blocks USDA’s proposal to relocate the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to Kansas City away from the Washington, D. C., region. The House funding legislation also prevents USDA from finalizing self-inspection of swine slaughter by pork processors and preventing USDA from terminating Forest Service Job Corps Civilian Conservation Center.

The bill rejects the Trump administration’s proposed cuts to federal nutrition programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The House has currently passed 10 out of 12 budget bills, while the Senate has yet to pass any budget bills. The next step in the budget process is for the Senate to pass the House budget proposal or draft its own version of the budget plan.

The Senate is expected to make significant changes to the House budget, which would require a negotiation process between House and Senate appropriations leaders.

The budget process must be complete by September 30. If not, Congress can choose to extend the current budget or another government shutdown will be triggered.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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Report: Moving Agriculture Research Centers Out of Washington Will Cost More

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Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue testifies during a House Agriculture Committee hearing on the rural economy, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo

Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue says moving the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture out of Washington, D.C., will save taxpayers millions of dollars. A report from an independent association of economists says the move will actually wind up costing more than staying put.

Moving two USDA research institutions from Washington, D.C., to the Kansas City area won’t save taxpayers money, as officials have promised, but will wind up costing more, according to a report from an association of government and academic economists.

The analysis, conducted by the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA), states that Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue’s decision to move hundreds of Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) employees to Kansas City this fall would actually cost taxpayers between $37-$128 million.

Secretary Perdue released the final relocation details last week, projecting a $300 million savings to taxpayers over 15 years.

The AAEA economists, including two former ERS administrators, criticized USDA for overstating the costs of keeping ERS and NIFA in the capital region while failing to account for lost value of employees who choose to retire or resign rather than move. Analysts also criticized USDA for not making the full cost-benefit-analysis available to the public.

The debate over Secretary Perdue’s ERS and NIFA relocation proposal has been growing in intensity since it was announced last fall. Many members of Congress, along with science and research advocates, have criticized the move. Some Congressional leaders, particularly those representing Kansas and Missouri, have supported Secretary Perdue.

Both agencies’ employees voted overwhelmingly to unionize and join the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) in the last two months.

One of the criticisms of the AAEA is that USDA didn’t consider other cost-saving measures that could have kept the agencies in the capital region.

“The USDA calculated real estate savings by comparing the cost of staying in current commercial property in the National Capital Area with the cost of moving to commercial property in Kansas City,” the report says. “The analysis ignored the option of moving to cheaper real estate in the Washington, DC, area.”

USDA owns three buildings in the capital region already, AAEA said in the analysis, and the agency neglected to evaluate the option of eliminating rental payments altogether by moving employees into existing available space.

AAEA criticism of USDA’s projections also included lost value of research by employees. AAEA estimates that between 50-to-70% of ERS and NIFA employees would choose to retire or quit rather than move.

“Because the number of departing employees is so large (250–400) and because most are highly skilled Ph.D. holders, we further assume that USDA will be able to rehire only one quarter of them per year and that the replacement employees will take approximately four years to reach the level of expertise and research productivity of the researchers they replace. Employees who do move suffer a 25 percent reduction in productivity during their first year as they buy and sell homes, find new schools and places of worship, and adjust to new settings,” AAEA wrote.

AAEA’s “bottom line” estimate is that U. S. taxpayers stand to lose from the ERS and NIFA relocation.

“Using the conservative baseline that the agencies stay in market-priced leased space in the National Capital Region and that 50 percent of current ERS and NIFA employees opt to relocate, the overall net loss to taxpayers comes to $83 million ($37 million in constant 2019 dollars). The less conservative assumptions that the agencies are housed in USDA-owned space and that only 25 percent of employees choose to relocate results in a $182 million net loss to taxpayers ($128 million in constant 2019 dollars),” the report concluded.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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