Merkley Prioritizes Rural Economic Opportunities In Agriculture Spending Bill

Portland, OR – Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, announced today that included in the Senate Agriculture Appropriations bill are key provisions to boost rural affordable housing, energy efficiency, and forest health, among other economic priorities for rural America.  Merkley also announced a large funding increase for food banks for the second year in a row. 

“Rural communities across the nation are struggling to create middle class jobs and keep their economies afloat,” said Merkley. “This bill delivers key wins for rural communities by helping create jobs, keeping people in their homes, and investing in agriculture.” 

Key elements of the legislation that passed the Senate Appropriations Committee today include:

Rural Energy Savings Program: $8 million for the Rural Energy Savings Program, a program that Merkley created to allow rural homeowners and business owners to obtain low-cost loans for energy efficiency renovations. This funding will support approximately $60 million in loans to complete renovations that will help conserve energy, lower emissions, and save consumers money on their energy bills.  

Rural Affordable Housing: The bill includes several provisions to address properties across the country that are in danger of leaving the low-income housing program, depriving rural communities of affordable housing. The bill allows nonprofits who take over management of these properties to recover management expenses and earn a small return on their investment the same way the current for-profit owners do. It also includes an $11.6 million funding increase to support rehabilitating low-income housing and facilitate transfers of ownership to keep housing in the program, and a new $1 million technical assistance pilot program to help nonprofits and housing authorities facilitate transfers. The bill also directs the Department to engage affordable housing advocates, project owners, tenants, and others to find acceptable and effective long term solutions that will retain projects in the affordable rural housing program. 

Forest Health: In an effort to provide additional tools and resources to help manage our forests, reduce the threat of wildfires, and restore healthy forest ecosystems, the bill directs the USDA to study and report back on the feasibility of new financing mechanisms that could leverage private dollars for forest health restoration projects.

Food Banks: An additional $5 million for the Emergency Food Assistance Program designed to help food banks with storage and distribution. Combined with last year’s increase, the program has seen a 20% increase in funding under Senator Merkley’s leadership.

Sustainable Agriculture: The bill increases funding by $2.3 million, to $27 million, for the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. SARE is the only USDA research program focused solely on sustainable agriculture practices and farmer-driven research. The program has helped develop innovative farm practices ranging from no-till farming to pest and weed management to supporting pollinators. Oregon’s large organic agriculture sector benefits significantly from the program.

Agricultural Research: The bill increases funding for the overall Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) by $25 million (to $375 million). AFRI is the nation’s largest peer-reviewed competitive grant program for agricultural sciences and funds agriculture research on topics including plant health and agriculture production practices, food safety, and agriculture economics.

Minority and Veteran Farmers: Maintains $10 million in mandatory funding and adds $3 million in discretionary funding for outreach and assistance for minority and veteran farmers and ranchers. The bill also directs an additional $5 million in new funding to veterans outreach activities in the Office of the Secretary for Veterans Affairs, as well as funding for the Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas (ATTRA) Armed to Farm program. 

The bill was voted out of committee today on a bipartisan vote. The next steps would be for the bill to be sent to the Senate floor for a full Senate vote, and eventually to be merged with a counterpart bill from the U.S. House of Representatives in order to be passed by both houses and signed into law.