On October 17, the House Agriculture Committee’s Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture, and Research held a hearing to review the implementation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s 2018 Farm Bill research programs with testimony from Deputy Undersecretary for Research, Education and Economics Scott Hutchins. This hearing comes after the Farm Bill was reauthorized in December of 2018.
Many new research programs were authorized in the 2018 Farm Bill, including the Agricultural Genome to Phenome Initiative, Urban, Indoor, and Other Emerging Agricultural Production Research, Education and Extension Initiative, and the Agricultural Advanced Research and Development Authority (AGARDA) pilot program. However, these programs were overshadowed by conversation about the relocation of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and Economic Research Service (ERS) to Kansas City and how it has impacted research. In her opening statement, Chairwoman Stacey Plaskett (D-USVI) reported that since September 30, the ERS has 214 vacant positions to fill (a vacancy rate of about 65%), while NIFA has 264 vacant positions out of 344 relocated positions. The Committee expressed concern that the relocation was “hurried, misguided, and mismanaged” and left “brain gaps” in critical research programs from retiring program managers. Members also expressed concern regarding the delays of both research funding from NIFA and 38 ERS reports (on climate, international market access, and further topics) as a result of staff attrition. Rep. Anthony Brindisi (D-NY) highlighted that Cornell University has $5 million in funding that is currently tied up in administrative delay. In addition, Rep. Plaskett shared that because of staff shortages in the relocation process some grant recipients may not receive awards until March 2020. Per Dr. Hutchins’ testimony, NIFA is accelerating the program manager hiring process and is committed to addressing stalled funding by March 2020 as the transition is finalized though it remains to be seen how long it will take for the agency to solve the backlogs.
Another key topic was the Specialty Crop Research Program. Specifically, Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL) expressed interest in continuing waiver authority language for specialty crop research as added in the 2019 continuing resolution (CR). Dr. Hutchins affirmed the Committee that USDA is committed to implementing the waiver for matching requirements so specialty crop research can continue. It is currently unclear what will happen to this language after the CR expires in November and a more long-term appropriations measure is established.
Several committee members asked questions relating to cooperative extension activities from the 2018 Farm Bill. Rep. Davis highlighted that cooperative extension in many states has seen budget cuts and asked how the program may expand. Hutchins explained USDA would be interested in expanding the model, perhaps by exploring cooperative extension through new means, such as agriculture technologies in precision agriculture. The Committee also questioned funding disparities between land-grant universities. Rep. Neil Dunn (R-FL) commented he hopes to resolve funding disparities between 1862 and 1890 land-grant universities, given current funds are controlled by different sets of rules. While Hutchins praised the agriculture research ecosystem through the land-grant and extension models, Committee members such as Rep. James Comer (R-KY) called for more accountability from land-grant universities to ensure they are returning investments.
Overall, though the hearing did little to touch on newly authorized programs, it reflected the bipartisan support for agricultural research initiatives and encouraged USDA to finalize the NIFA/ERS relocation so research funding and capacity could resume as normal.
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