After a busy month of July, Congress has left town for the annual August district work period with the unfinished appropriations process for Fiscal Year 2024 (FY24) and the farm bill taking center stage. Despite the Senate advancing their respective bills, the House passed only one of the twelve annual appropriations bills, greatly increasing the chances of a government shutdown in September.
Meanwhile, the House Agriculture Committee held several field hearings in Minnesota and Maine during the first week of this month. NFU participated in both – Minnesota Farmers Union President Gary Wertish highlighted the impacts of market concentration in rural communities. New England Farmers Union President Roger Noonan raised similar concerns and also spoke on the need for updated disaster assistance programs for farmers operating at a smaller scale.
HOUSE PUNTS FY24 AGRICULTURE FUNDING BILL TO SEPTEMBER
In late July, House Republican leaders ditched their plans to bring the FY24 Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration (Ag-FDA) bill to the floor. The lone FY24 spending bill the House was able to pass is the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs bill.
The Ag-FDA bill is usually one of the most bipartisan and least controversial funding measures. The current hold-up is largely the result of internal division within the GOP majority concerning total spending levels for FY24 and the inclusion of poison pill policy riders.
The FY24 Ag-FDA bill provides USDA, Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) a total of $25.3 billion in appropriations, which marks a roughly two-percent cut from FY23 levels. But according to various reports, members of the House Freedom Caucus have been demanding even greater cuts that would be deeper than the recissions that were agreed to as part of the debt-ceiling negotiations back in May.
NFU made clear its opposition to the House Ag-FDA funding bill upon the bill’s release in May. In addition to proposing major discretionary funding cuts, it includes numerous harmful provisions, including preventing USDA from completing its rulemakings to strengthen the Packers and Stockyards Act (P&S Act), cutting the program that supports distressed borrowers of FSA loans, and rolling back funding for key climate change and nutrition programs.
The Senate version, which advanced out of committee unanimously, does not contain the harmful P&S Act rider, and funds programs that hew to the debt-ceiling deal spending targets. NFU remains committed to ensuring the harmful P&S Act rider is not included in the Ag-FDA funding bill when it reaches the conference phase.
USDA ANNOUNCES NEW EFFORTS TO INCREASE COMPETITION IN AGRICULTURE MARKETS
On July 19, during a meeting of the White House competition council, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced a new partnership with 31 state attorneys general “to enhance competition and protect consumers in food and agricultural markets, including in grocery, meat and poultry processing, and other markets.” This new initiative furthers the goals in President Biden’s Executive Order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy, building on the “whole of government” approach.
The Agricultural Competition Partnership aims to assist state attorneys general in tackling anticompetitive market structures in the agricultural supply chain that are causing increased costs and reduced choices for consumers and producers. For years, state attorneys general have been requesting support from USDA and other federal agencies on agricultural competition matters. The new partnership reflects USDA prioritizing an area in which there is a significant need for action.
The focus areas of the Agricultural Competition Partnership include:
- Anticompetitive market structures and practices, as well as price gouging and other anti-consumer practices, in food, retail, meat and poultry processing, and other agriculture industries.
- Lack of choices for consumers and producers.
- Conflicts of interest, misuse of intellectual property, and anticompetitive barriers across the food and agriculture supply chains, such as in seed markets.
According to USDA, the new partnership “will enhance the capacity of state attorneys general to conduct on-the-ground assessments of competition and consumer issues, enhance coordination between federal and state agriculture and competition authorities, create new and more independent research programs, and ultimately result in fairer and competitive markets and more resilient supply chains.”
Prior to this announcement, NFU President Rob Larew participated in a listening session hosted by the White House and USDA to discuss legislative priorities on competition for food and agriculture. NFU intends to continue working with the White House and USDA to strengthen and diversify supply chains and protect family farmers and ranchers from anticompetitive conduct.
FARM BILL FOCUS: A COMPETITION TITLE
On July 27, NFU endorsed and cheered the introduction of the Fairness for Small-Scale Farmers and Ranchers Act of 2023. The legislation, introduced by Representatives Greg Casar (D-TX) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) in the House and Senator Peter Welch (D-VT) in the Senate, aims to address corporate consolidation in the U.S. food system head-on.
Major provisions provide some of the strongest legislative and regulatory actions to increase competition throughout the agricultural supply chain, penalize anticompetitive conduct in livestock and poultry markets, and provide investments to strengthen supply chain infrastructure. The bill also strengthens the Packers and Stockyards Act (P&S Act) and reinstates mandatory country-of-origin labeling (COOL) for beef, pork, and dairy products.
Specifically, the Fairness for Small-Scale Farmers and Ranchers Act:
- Institutes a moratorium on large agriculture, food and beverage manufacturing, and grocery retail mergers.
- Requires federal antitrust retroactive reviews of large agriculture and food-related mergers.
- Expands the Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP).
- Restores mandatory COOL for beef, pork, and dairy.
- Strengthens the P&S Act and P&S Act rulemaking authority.
- Provides additional resources for the Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach (FOTO) program to better support beginning, veteran, and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.
Reps. Casar, Blumenauer, and Sen. Welch held a press conference introducing the legislation. Layla Soberanis, NFU’s Senior Government Relations Representative, spoke at the press conference, praising the provisions that direct new scrutiny of large mergers, address the rampant consolidation throughout the agriculture industry, as well as the need for stronger antitrust laws and efforts help protect family farmers and ranchers from corporate abuses – encapsulating Fairness for Farmers.
NFU’s top priority in the months ahead is ensuring passage of a strong farm bill and establishing a dedicated title within the farm bill on competition. This legislation provides a blueprint for the contents and language of a competition title in the 2023 Farm Bill.