Senate committee passes $145.1B agriculture appropriations bill

The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee has passed a $145.1 billion agriculture appropriations bill for fiscal year 2019.

The U.S. Senate is poised to vote on a $145.1 billion agriculture appropriations bill for fiscal year 2019.

The proposal passed unanimously out of the Senate Appropriations Committee on May 11. It details $121.8 billion in mandatory program funding and $23.3 billion in discretionary spending, which is $710 million less than 2018 levels but $6.1 billion more than President Donald Trump’s budget request.

Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, who serves as the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, said the bill provides “significant resources for rural Americans and Oregonians,” highlighting increased funding for rural broadband, organic farming programs and the USDA Agricultural Research Service, or ARS.

The USDA operates three ARS locations in Oregon — one in Pendleton, one in Corvallis, and one in Burns. Research projects focus on a variety of crops, from apples and pears to wheat and alfalfa.

Dan Long, director of the Columbia Plateau Conservation Research Center north of Pendleton, said the station’s budget annual budget has remained flat at $1.9 million for the last three or four funding cycles.

The station currently supports five scientists on staff, including an agronomist, soil physicist, soil chemist, hydrologist and soil microbiologist. If one was to retire, Long said he would not be able to fill the vacancy due to inflationary costs.

“We’ve been able to survive through attrition,” Long said.

Long said he is not sure where the additional $100 million would be directed, but is pleased to see lawmakers mulling such a large increase for the ARS, which is more than the service has seen in past years.

“It certainly is a great signal that Congress sees the work that ARS is doing is important to the viability of the nation, the nation’s food supply and protection of its resources.”

Funding for rural broadband internet would also receive a $425 million increase in 2019, building on the previous fiscal year’s investment of $600 million. Farmers and ranchers are becoming increasingly reliant on dependable broadband service as they adopt more precision agriculture technology, such as real-time soil moisture monitors and GPS tractors, into their operations.

Organic farming is another focus in the Senate appropriations bill, with several programs in line for a funding increase in 2019. The USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program would receive $37 million, up $2 million from last year.

The National Organic Program would get $15 million, up $3 million from 2018, and the Organic Transitions Program — which helps farmers transition their land from conventional to organic farming, a process that takes three years before certification in Oregon — would receive $6 million, up $1 million over the previous year.

The appropriations bill also prohibits the federal government from interfering with industrial hemp research and development. Both Sen. Merkley and fellow Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden are pushing to legalize industrial hemp as an agricultural commodity, which Oregon began regulating in 2016. The program now has 382 registered hemp growers and 119 registered handlers.

“This (appropriations) bill takes a much-needed step toward those rural Oregon goals I’ve long worked to achieve,” Wyden said in a written statement.

The bill now heads for a full Senate vote. The House Appropriations Committee already approved its version of the agriculture appropriations bill on May 16 by a 31-20 vote.

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