Farm Progress

Also: More flexibility for rural housing and streamlining port permitting.

Joshua Baethge, Policy editor

March 19, 2024

4 Min Read
U.S. capitol building with flag background
Getty Images/franckreporter

There’s never a shortage of agriculture news. Here are a few policy stories you may have missed over the past week.

USDA unveils plan to boost biomass supply chain

USDA released new guidelines for how it intends to spur development of the biomass supply chain. In a report titled Building a Resilient Biomass Supply: A Plan to Enable the Bioeconomy in America, the agency lays out an assessment of current biomass uses as well as recommendations on how to increase biomass availability. The report was mandated by a 2022 Executive Order President Biden issued to expand bio product economic development.

Biomass is organic material from agriculture, livestock and food waste that can be converted into sustainable fuel, fiber and other products. It can also be created by producers who grow crops as feedstock to produce biobased products.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says increasing demand for biomass is a “golden opportunity” to expand markets and create new revenue for American producers, particularly in rural areas.

“We are proud to support President Biden’s commitment to advance America’s domestic bioeconomy and ultimately create new markets and jobs,” Vilsack says. “This comprehensive roadmap will strengthen our production and preprocessing systems to provide incentives for producers and manufactures, so that biomass can be used to fuel the American bioeconomy.”

New rural housing bill becomes law

A bipartisan bill intended to improve access to affordable housing was included in the government appropriations bill President Biden signed last week.

In February, Reps. Zach Nunn, R- Iowa, and Wiley Nickel, D- N.C., introduced the Promote Affordable Rural Housing Act to revise USDA’s Section 524 loan program.

The program provides loans to organizations developing hosing sites for low-income families. Many recipients have struggled to repay their loans within the required two-year window. The Promote Affordable Rural Housing Act extends that window to five years. It also allows funds to be used for other related projects like surveys, architectural design and engineering work.

Nunn notes that more than 10% of his state’s rural population lives below the poverty line.

“Our country is suffering from an affordable housing crisis, especially in rural areas,” he says. “This is a growing challenge that must be addressed now to prevent it from getting any worse. I’m proud to announce that our bill to modernize USDA rural housing loans is now law.

Bipartisan bill aims to streamline port permitting

Reps. David Rouzer, R- N.C., and Mary Pelota, D- Alaska, introduced legislation they say would help build and modernize ports and harbors. The Permitting Optimization for Responsible Transportation Act, or PORT Act, would reduce some requirements of the United States Maritime Administration, known as MARAD.

Project developers are often required to receive “categorical exclusions” from MARAD verifying that their efforts don’t have a negative environmental impact or require additional studies. The PORT Act would negate the need for categorical exclusions in certain cases where another federal agency has already issued one.

Many port and harbor projects fall under the jurisdiction of multiple agencies like the Federal Highway Administration or the Federal Railroad Administration. The PORT Act would also make it harder to use non-American material on projects.

“Supply chain challenges resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic as well as current disruptions in the Red Sea demonstrate just how critical it is to have reliable and efficient U.S. ports," Rouzer says. "The PORT Act makes commonsense permitting reforms to help U.S. ports build the infrastructure necessary to keep goods moving and prices down.

NPPC applauds president’s USDA funding proposal

Officials with the National Pork Producers Council said they appreciated President Biden’s proposal for fiscal year 2025 USDA funding.

The president has proposed $29.2 billion for USDA discretionary spending authority next year. It would authorize 4.7 million for swine health programs. That includes $4.25 million to establish the Swine Health Improvement plan, a new disease and surveillance program that would address issues like African swine fever.

The president has proposed adding an additional $20,0000 for responding to animal disease outbreaks through USDA’s Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service National Veterinary Stockpile. His budget also includes $3.99 million for APHIS’s Biotechnology Regulatory Services, which oversees the development and introduction of genetically engineered organisms. Biden has also proposed allocating $3.8 billion for ag research, education and outreach.

While presidents regularly release budget proposal highlighting administration priorities, funding decisions ultimately come down to Congress. Lawmakers are currently still debating this fiscal year’s budget, a mere six months after the original funding deadline.

About the Author(s)

Joshua Baethge

Policy editor, Farm Progress

Joshua Baethge covers a wide range of government issues affecting agriculture. Before joining Farm Progress, he spent 10 years as a news and feature reporter in Texas. During that time, he covered multiple state and local government entities, while also writing about real estate, nightlife, culture and whatever else was the news of the day.

Baethge earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of North Texas. In his free time, he enjoys going to concerts, discovering new restaurants, finding excuses to be outside and traveling as much as possible. He is based in the Dallas area where he lives with his wife and two kids.

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