January 27, 2020

Highlights: House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture- Budget Hearing, NRCS Chief

On Friday, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture held a budget hearing and heard testimony from USDA- Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Chief Jason Weller.

In his opening statement at Friday’s hearing, Subcommittee Chairman Robert Aderholt (R., Ala.) indicated that, “We convene today to review NRCS’s fiscal year 2016 budget request. NRCS requests a total of $1.031 billion in discretionary funding for its salaries, expenses, programs, and activities. In addition, about $3.2 billion will be available through the farm bill’s mandatory conservation programs to farmers, ranchers, and private forest landowners to help them preserve, protect, and enhance their land.”

During the discussion portion of the hearing, Rep. Sanford Bishop (D., Ga.) brought up the issue of NRCS using drones in its remote sensing work– here is the exchange with Chief Well on this issue.

Rep. Sanford Bishop: Can you tell us if you have any plans to utilize drones to assist in the collection of information, because you do a lot of photography, put a lot of contracts out to take pictures, and there’s a tremendous amount of interest in the use of drones in agriculture, particularly in assisting the optimal design and layout of fields for water assessments and other related issues.

“Have you looked at this issue? Are there any current interagency discussions with FAA or other agencies concerning the growth in the use of drones? Obviously there are some security issues involved, but there’s also a great deal of interest for commercializing that practice and using it in agriculture.”

Mr. Jason Weller: “Absolutely. It’s a new technology, but we also have to be careful because folks do have privacy concerns. The FAA also had safety concerns. So in part NRCS, we sort of said full stop, let’s wait for FAA to actually come out with a rule.

Now that the rule has been issued, we’re trying to figure out how the NRCS can work within that to do remote sensing, but in a way that protects privacy, assure landowners who are not there there’s a regulatory component, because I know folks have some concerns when the federal government starts flying drones over their property. So we just need to make sure NRCS is doing this technology in a way that’s appropriate, that’s sensitive to landowners’ concerns, but also then helps us do a better job of managing resources.”

Also at the hearing, Rep. David Young (R., Iowa) wanted more information about NRCS wetland determinations and the farmer’s ability to appeal these decisions.

Rep. David Young: “Last year the NRCS proposed updating the way it conducts wetlands determinations in the prairie pothole states, you know, Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota. How will the wetland determination proposal affect producers, and when there is a review, will there be an ability for folks to have a second request for review and a second opinion if they disagree with the determination you make?”

Mr. Weller: “Yes. So first starting with what a producer hopefully will experience with us. What we’re proposing is bringing a modern, up-to-date, scientifically driven approach to doing what we’re calling off site determinations. This is a practice we’ve had at NRCS for decades. But what we didn’t have in the prairie pothole region is a consistent approach across all four states. So depending on where your property was, you had a different approach that we needed to update.

“So what this means, though, is actually, at the end of the day, when we implement this—because we were just seeking comments on this approach so far—is better service for a producer. So right now, as you know, there’s been a backlog, particularly in North and South Dakota, but Iowa as well. And in a lot of cases it’s because it’s on site determinations. It takes staff time. When you do an off site determination, you’re using remote sensing technology, you know, photography, LIDAR coverage, other techniques to really do equivalent, if not a more accurate determination approach.

The bottom line is time savings. So the average number of times it takes to do an off site determination is six hours. The average number of hours it takes to do on site is at least 14 hours. Many of them are 40 hours. And that doesn’t count all the driving time. When you break that down in dollars and cents, if you just say, take—you assume 30 bucks an hour for like a field technician to go out and do it, that equates to about 170 bucks to do an off site determination. When you do on site it’s like over $400 a determination, on average.

But when you multiply that over like South Dakota, where they have 2,500 determinations in the backlog, that’s the difference between $300,000 over a million dollars. And when it comes down to that kind of expenditure, when you add that up across four states, you’re talking real money. And that’s money I’d rather employ back in the field to provide, you know, technical assistance to producers as opposed to investing it in a way that we can be more efficient.

“So to your question about what happens for the producer, the first approach would be the off site determinations, which will be much more efficient. They’ll get determinations made quicker. It’s a preliminary determination. If they don’t like the determination, they can then appeal it and they can then request an on site determination.

“If they don’t like the on site determination from the field staff, they can then appeal that to the state office. If they don’t like the state office determination, they can then appeal that to the national appeals division. So there’s absolutely all these protections for a producer. We’re not changing any of that, how that works. We’re actually just trying to streamline it and get the determinations made faster and cheaper.”

And a third key issue discussed at Friday’s Appropriations Committee hearing was on the Regional Conservation Partnership Program.

Chief Weller noted that, “It’s the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which is a new authority in the 2014 Farm Bill. The basic idea here is you actually invite local partners to devise their own projects. You ask them what do they want to do. So what we’re finding is that more often than not you go into places like the Salinas Valley or the [Pajaro] Valley, in your district, for example, and there’s a lot of people doing a lot of really good things, but more often than not we’re not coordinated. We’re putting a lot of money in the ground, but in a way we’re like ships passing in the night.

“So what we did at the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, it’s sort of like pulling a sock inside out. Instead of the federal government saying this is what we’re going to do in your community, instead we asked the community what do you want to do, and then we’re here to support you. So we opened it up to competition, and we got applications, 600 applications from every state in the country, from all over the country, and folks were really excited about this.

“And what it does is it catalyzes that locally led approach where you get like the Santa Cruz RCD. They then talk to Driscoll’s Berries, they talk to the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency, they talk to Santa Cruz extension, they talk to the marine sanctuary, and they leverage the resources upfront, and then they come to us and they say NRCS, this is what we would like to do with the EQIP program in the Pajaro Valley to save water, but also to increase ground water recharge.

“And so one of the projects we funded then in the Pajaro Valley this year through our first round was $800,000 of NRCS money matched by $900,000 of the partners, so a total project over one and a half million dollars that they estimate is going to save over 400 acre feet of withdrawal from the aquifer, but also add additional recharge aquifer of 600 acre feet. That is a lot of water savings in a water scarce area.

“But you’re getting industry involved, Driscoll’s Berries; you’re getting extension to provide really good outreach and education; you’re engaging RCD, so it’s a locally led approach; and the federal government then is just a co-investor, we’re a true partner in this. So this is one example. Nationally we have 115 of these projects that they’re just showing this is an approach we really absolutely have to pursue.”

Keith Good

California Drought Update

Following a report earlier this week in the Los Angeles Times, which pointed to the persistent dry conditions in California, an update this week at the National Drought Monitor indicated that, “It was another dry week for much of the West, with parts of the Pacific Northwest, Northern California, Arizona, New Mexico, and the Intermountain Basin receiving no precipitation.”

Mountain snowpack remained well below normal, not just in California but all across the Cascades, Sierra Nevada, and Intermountain Basin,” the update said.

Bloomberg writer Craig Giammona reported this week that, “Carrot farming is proving to be a tough job for Campbell Soup Co.

“The soup giant, which acquired a carrot business as part of its 2012 purchase of Bolthouse Farms, is struggling with extreme weather in California, the crops’ main growing region. The conditions — first drought, then intense rains — contributed to a 28 percent decline in the division’s profit last quarter.

California’s record-setting drought has forced Campbell to shift harvesting to farms that weren’t as hard hit, as well as increasing land and water costs. In December, a series of rainstorms struck the state. While they didn’t end the drought, they damaged the crops.”

From a policy perspective, a news release on Thursday from Rep. John Garamendi (D., Calif.) stated that, “Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-CA-01) and [Rep. Garamendi] today announced the introduction of HR 1060, which will accelerate the completion of a feasibility study of Sites Reservoir and authorize the project should it be found feasible. Located in Colusa and Glenn counties, Sites Reservoir is a proposed off-stream reservoir that would store as much as 1.8 million acre feet of water for cities, agriculture and the environment.”

The news release noted that, “The California Department of Water Resources recently reported that Sites Reservoir would generate an additional 900,000 acre feet of water during droughts, enough water to supply over seven million Californians for an entire year.”

“The Northern California Water Agency produced an infographic on Sites Reservoir,” the release said.


Friday Morning Update: Policy; Trade; Ag Economy; Biofuels; Biotech; and, Budget

Policy Issues

On Thursday, the House Agriculture Nutrition Subcommittee met, “to review SNAP recipient characteristics and dynamics.” Yesterday’s hearing followed Wednesday’s full House Ag Committee meeting on SNAP and nutrition issues.

A summary and overview of Thursday’s Subcommittee hearing is available here.

Over the past two days, the House Ag Committee has been presented with a large amount of detailed analysis and information on SNAP; it appears that Chairman Mike Conaway’s (R., Tex.) top-to-bottom review of the program is off to a substantive and serious start.

In remarks on the House floor Thursday, Ag Nutrition Subcommittee ranking member Jim McGovern (D., Mass.) indicated that, “Mr. Speaker, yesterday the House Agriculture Committee – where I am proud to serve – held the first hearing in its ‘top-to-bottom’ review of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

“SNAP is the nation’s pre-eminent anti-hunger program that provides critical food assistance to more than 46 million Americans. Last year, 16 million children – or 1 in 5 American children – relied on SNAP. Unfortunately, every indication is that Republicans will once again try to cut this critical safety-net program.”


House Ag Nutrition Subcommittee Hearing on SNAP

Categories: Farm Bill /Nutrition

On Thursday afternoon, the House Agriculture Nutrition Subcommittee held a hearing, “to review SNAP recipient characteristics and dynamics.”

On Wednesday, the full Committee heard background testimony from two experts on the SNAP program.

In her opening statement on Thursday, Subcommittee Chairwoman Jackie Walorski (R., Ind.) indicated that, “The full committee yesterday examined why a review of SNAP is so important – it’s the largest welfare program in both the number of recipients and the amount of spending, yet the program lacks a clear mission and the data reveals that it is not helping lift people out of poverty. It is my hope and expectation that this subcommittee, along with the work done at the full committee, will explore and gain a better understanding of the entire program and specifically its recipients to find unmet needs and areas of overlap.”

Chairwoman Walorski added that, “Today is not about policy recommendations; it’s about understanding the diverse characteristics and dynamics of the more than 46 million Americans who receive benefits from this program each month. Over the coming months, our review will include a range of stakeholder perspectives, including current and former recipients; non-profits, states and localities, the food industry, and nutrition experts to name a few.”

Subcommitte ranking member Jim McGovern (D., Mass.) noted in his opening remarks that, “As I said at yesterday’s hearing, I’m a little surprised that we’re starting the first ‘top-to-bottom’ review of programs within this Committee’s jurisdiction with SNAP, a program whose caseloads and spending are going down according to CBO. I hope we exercise the same rigorous oversight on farm subsidies to big agribusiness – payments that CBO projections indicate could end up costing nearly $5 billion more than expected in the farm bill.”

Ranking member McGovern added that, “I hope today’s hearing builds upon some of the overarching themes that came up yesterday. In particular, we need to address one the biggest flaws in our social safety net, the so-called ‘cliff.’ This happens when someone gets a job but earns so little they lose their benefits and end up worse off. And, if we really want to move people out of poverty for good, we need to raise the minimum wage.”

The Subcommittee heard testimony from only one panel that included: Karen Cunnyngham, a Senior Researcher at Mathematica Policy Research, Dr. Gregory Mills a Senior Fellow at the Urban Institute, Dr. James P. Ziliak from the University of Kentucky and Stephen Tordella, the president of Decision Demographics.

In her prepared testimony, Karen Cunnyngham indicated that, “In fiscal year 2013, 41 percent of SNAP households received the maximum benefit and 5 percent received the minimum benefit. The average monthly SNAP benefit was $271. SNAP households with children received a relatively high average benefit of $410, while households with elderly individuals received a relatively low one of $134. One reason for the difference in average benefits is the difference in average household size: 3.2 people for SNAP households with children, compared with 1.3 people for households with elderly individuals. SNAP households that include a nonelderly adult with a disability had an average monthly SNAP benefit of $204 and households with no elderly individuals, individuals with disabilities, or children had an average benefit of $195.”

Dr. Gregory Mills noted in his prepared remarks yesterday that, “This study examines the rates, causes, and costs of participant churn in SNAP. Churn occurs when a household receiving SNAP exits the program and then re-enters within four months or less, as defined by FNS for this research. Some churn is to be expected—as when a temporary increase in earnings makes a family briefly ineligible for assistance. Churn presents a policy concern, however, when benefits are disrupted for households who were continuously eligible. In these situations families lose benefits while off the program, with added time and expense involved in re-entering. Budgetarily, the pattern of case closings and reopenings brings higher State and federal administrative costs. Importantly, about half of the households who churn are families with children whose food security is placed at risk.”

Dr. James P. Ziliak stated in his prepared testimony that, “The past decade of near uninterrupted growth in participation is unprecedented in the program’s history. By most measures the recession of 2001 was mild, and with declining unemployment in the aftermath of the recession, past experience would have dictated a decline in participation in the mid 2000s. This did not happen. Participation then accelerated with the onset of the Great Recession as millions of Americans lost work.”

Dr. Ziliak added that, “[T]he fraction of SNAP households headed by a high school dropout has plummeted by more than half since 1980, and by 2011, more than a third of SNAP households were headed by someone with some college or more.”

In his prepared remarks, Stephen Tordella noted that, “The most common events associated with entry into SNAP were related to decreases in family earnings, loss of employment, and changes to the family situation. Among those who entered SNAP in the study period, 30 percent experienced a substantial decrease in family earnings in the previous four months, while 23 percent experienced a substantial loss in other family income—income aside from earnings and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Nearly 16 percent of those who entered SNAP were in families where a member became unemployed within the previous four months, and 12 percent experienced a change in their family situation within the previous four months, such as a pregnancy, a new dependent in the family, or a separation or divorce.”

On the other hand, Mr. Tordella noted that, “In about 30 percent of households that exit SNAP, the data do not show an event related to improved financial circumstances or reduced need in the previous four months that we would readily associate with exit from the program. About 70 percent experienced a substantial increase in income or a decrease in the number of family members. Thirty-seven percent experienced more than one of these events in the four months before exiting. Increases in earnings were the most common of the events we examined that preceded exits. These events, however, are common and do not always lead to exiting SNAP.”

With respect to re-entry into the program, Mr. Tordella explained that, “Forty-seven percent of SNAP participants who exited the program in the panel period re-entered within 12 months. Another 12 percent re-entered within two years, for a total of 59 percent re-entering within 24 months. Participants returned to the program more quickly during 2008 to 2012 than prior study periods. In the mid-2000s, 53 percent of participants re-entered within two years.”

During the discussion portion of yesterday’s hearing, Chairman Walorski had the following exchange with Dr. Mills.

Rep. Jackie Walorski: Mr. Mills, I have a question for you. In your churn study, talking about the cycling of families on and off of benefits, you mentioned one of the reasons that recipients were experiencing personal difficulties. And kind of in a follow-up to a question I had yesterday on the full committee on SNAP about families getting real help, what’s the engagement level of states going into these recertifications?

Dr. Gregory Mills: It’s rather extensive. That is to say the effort that is put into the recertification is a full review of the eligibility factors of the case, so it’s immigration, citizenship, it’s their household income, expenses, and resources. So it is, in terms of case worker effort, it’s probably something like two to three hours of a case worker’s time.

Rep. Walorski: So there is a case worker from SNAP that potentially knows there’s a situation with a family?

Dr. Mills: A scheduled—well, I’m talking actually about a scheduled recertification, so those would occur typically at intervals of 12 or 24 months. The point I was trying to make in my testimony was that the, say, two to three hours that might be spent by a case worker at recertification is far less than what is required at an initial application. And the phenomenon of churn causes individuals, once they go off the program, many of them have to come back by going through a full initial application, which may require, say, six or seven hours of a case worker’s time, so it’s more—

Rep. Walorski: And what did you learn in your interview process on interviews with SNAP staff and those in the community-based organizations?

Dr. Mills: I indicated some of the recommendations that individuals have, the staff of these offices. We interviewed staff in one local office in each of the six states. We also interviewed representatives of community-based organizations. And I believe the chairman actually made reference in his opening statement the other day to the extension of the food assistance network to include food banks and other nonprofit organizations.

Some states do make use of such community-based organizations to assist clients in the outreach and in applying for benefits. That is a strategy that some states also use at recertification, allowing the client to be interviewed by a worker at a food bank if, for instance, they might find it difficult to get to a local office, and if they’re already going to that food bank and it would represent less burden for them.

Rep. Walorski: I appreciate it. Maybe this is the disadvantage of longer certification periods, fewer interactions and opportunities to help families. I appreciate your testimony.

And ranking member McGovern had this exchange with Dr. Mills.

Rep. Jim McGovern: Thank you very much. Just on this issue of churning and recertification, we had a witness here yesterday who said that there should be more certification processes. And I guess my question to you is, you know, how would requirements for more frequent recertification likely affect the churn rate?

Dr. Mills: I think of this as a tradeoff that’s a difficult one to make. As I pointed out in my testimony, there are multiple objectives here. You want to provide access to the program for those who are eligible for benefits, and at the same time you want to maintain the integrity of the program by not allowing those who are ineligible to access the program. So the procedural barriers exist for multiple reasons. You want to make sure that people in fact meet the eligibility requirements, but you don’t want to place those barriers or those hurdles so high that it might prevent those who are in fact entitled to receive benefits from entering the program.

In general, as I think you heard from [Robert Greenstein, President of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities] the other day, the error rates in the program are very low. Only about 1% of recipients in the SNAP program are in fact ineligible and should not be receiving benefits. All others are eligible and perhaps not receiving the correct amount. But the program, by those measures, is very well administered, reflecting the amount of attention that goes into initial certification and recertification.

More barriers—I think that this is getting to your question—more barriers, more procedural requirements almost certainly would increase the rate of churn because there would be some individuals eligible for assistance who would not be able to meet those requirements, and they would go off, but they’d be unable to make ends meet without those benefits, they would reapply.

Rep. McGovern: Right. And I’d like to think that we all can agree that everybody who is eligible for this benefit should be able to get it, that we shouldn’t be going out of our way to make it more difficult for eligible people to get a food benefit.

And at the conclusion of Thursday’s hearing, Rep. McGovern noted that, “The SNAP program is a food program, it is not a job-training program, it is not a jobs program, and we need to make sure that everybody in this country has access to food; food ought to be a right- and I think this is a program that works.”

Also, in remarks yesterday on the House floor, Rep. McGovern noted in part that, “Mr. Speaker, yesterday the House Agriculture Committee – where I am proud to serve – held the first hearing in its ‘top-to-bottom’ review of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

“SNAP is the nation’s pre-eminent anti-hunger program that provides critical food assistance to more than 46 million Americans. Last year, 16 million children – or 1 in 5 American children – relied on SNAP. Unfortunately, every indication is that Republicans will once again try to cut this critical safety-net program.”

Keith Good