Sustainability 101 Pathway:
Agriculture Definitions and Glossary
This glossary is intended to assist in learning the definitions and terminology surrounding sustainable agriculture. It includes some Congress bills, farming related terms, conservation, food and crops, investment terms, regulatory programs, and more. CIBO wants to help educate you on important topics like climate change and sustainable agriculture. The definitions below will help further your learning and understanding of these topics that are significant to the future of the planet. These terms are from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) which advocates for federal policy reform for the sustainability of food systems, natural resources, and rural communities. NSAC’s vision of agriculture is where a safe, nutritious, ample, and affordable food supply is produced by a group of farmers who profit from pursuing their work, while protecting the environment, and contributing to the strength and stability of their communities.
Source of the Glossary, Definitions and Additional Resources
The Farm Bill that was passed by Congress and signed into law on February 7th, 2014. The bill reauthorizes and provides funding for commodity, crop insurance, nutrition, conservation, research, rural development, forestry, credit, specialty crop, energy, and trade programs for Fiscal Years 2014 through 2018.
The Farm Bill that was passed by Congress and signed into law on December 20, 2018. The bill reauthorizes and provides funding for commodity, crop insurance, nutrition, conservation, research, rural development, forestry, credit, specialty crop, energy, and trade programs for Fiscal Years 2019 through 2023.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service administers programs that facilitate the efficient, fair marketing of U.S. agricultural products, including food, fiber, and specialty crops.
Applied research expands on fundamental (basic) research findings to uncover practical ways in which new knowledge can be advanced to benefit individuals and society. Applied research is generally designed to solve practical problems such as, for instance, mitigating climate change, or developing new niche markets for family farmers, or developing plant varieties with improved nutritional values that work well in diversified crop rotations.
An appropriations act of Congress permits USDA and other federal agencies to incur financial obligations to be drawn from the Federal Treasury. Appropriations are most often annual (one year in duration), but can be multiple-year (a definite period in excess of one fiscal year) or no-year (available indefinitely). For more details on the annual appropriations process, visit our Appropriations Resource page.
Legislation that establishes or continues a specific federal policy, the legal operation of a federal program or agency, either indefinitely or for a specific period of time, or that sanctions a particular type of expenditure. An authorization normally is a prerequisite for an appropriation or other kind of budget authority. An authorization may limit the amount of budget authority to be provided or may authorize the appropriation of “such sums as may be necessary.” Some authorizing committees of Congress also have jurisdiction over direct, mandatory spending and, in those instances, the provisions of the authorizing legislation determine the spending level for those mandatory programs. The farm bill is an example of an authorizing bill. The farm bill includes programs that are authorized for appropriations as well as direct, mandatory spending programs.
While generally a farmer is considered to be a “beginning farmer or rancher” by USDA if they have been farming for ten years or less, each USDA agency may have additional program specific criteria to determine whether or not a farmer is deemed eligible as a beginning farmer. For example, by statute and regulation, to qualify as a beginning farmer or rancher under USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) guidelines, the loan applicant must be an individual or entity who:
For FSA farm ownership (FO) loan purposes, all applicants (including beginning farmers) cannot own a farm greater than 30 percent of the median size farm in the county and must have participated in the operation of a farm for at least 3 years, although some flexibility can be given. If the applicant is a corporation, cooperative, partnership, or other type of entity, all members must be related by blood or marriage. If the applicant is a corporation, all stockholders individually must be eligible beginning farmers.
For most other USDA programs, beginning farmers and ranchers are defined by administrative guidance as farmers and ranchers (or all members of the entity) who (a) have not operated a farm or ranch for more than 10 years, and (b) will materially or substantially participate in the operation of the farm or ranch and provide substantial day-to-day labor and management of the farm. In some instances, additional criteria could be added for the purposes of the particular program.
Plant material, vegetation, and forest and agricultural waste used as a fuel or energy source. The 2008 Farm Bill defines “renewable biomass” in part to include any organic material available on a renewable or recurring basis on private or tribal land including renewable plant materials and waste materials (crop residues, wood waste, animal waste and byproducts, and food and yard waste).
Legislation which authorizes all of the federal school meal and child nutrition programs, such as the School Breakfast, National School Lunch, Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), the Farm to School Grant Program, the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and the WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program, all of which help to ensure that low-income children have access to healthy and nutritious foods. The reauthorization occurs roughly every five years and amends two existing statutes: the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act and the Child Nutrition Act of 1966. The last reauthorization was in 2010.
A federally owned and operated corporation within the USDA created to stabilize and support agricultural prices and farm income by making loans and payments to producers, purchasing commodities, and engaging in various other operations. The CCC handles all money transactions for agricultural price and income support and related programs. The CCC authorizes the sale of CCC-acquired commodities to other government agencies, foreign governments, and relief and development organizations. The CCC also provides mandatory funding for other farm bill programs, including conservation, rural development, renewal energy, and research. A Board of Directors under the Secretary of Agriculture manages the CCC.
Funds that are awarded to project proposals submitted by eligible individuals or entities in response to a request for applications or proposals based on a set of criteria, often by review panels of relevant experts and professional peers. For most competitive programs, only a portion of the proposals submitted will be ranked highly enough to receive funding. Some federal grants require cost-sharing or matching of awarded funds.
Conservation systems, practices, or management measures designed to address a resource concern.
A natural resource and environmental problem-solving and management process that for a particular farm or field identifies resource concerns, inventories resources and baseline data, identifies desired future conditions and conservation objectives, selects conservation activities to implement, improve or maintain, and periodically assesses progress. Conservation planning generally integrates ecological, economic, and social considerations. The ultimate objective is the sound use and management of soil, water, air, energy, plant, and animal resources to prevent their degradation and ensure their sustained use and renewal. A conservation plan can also refer to a plan developed for the purposes of meeting the conservation compliance requirements for receiving commodity and crop insurance subsidies.
Any technique or measure used to protect or improve natural resources and environmental quality, for which standards and specifications for installation, operation, or maintenance have been developed. Practices approved by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) are compiled at each conservation district in its field office technical guide. Conservation practices generally fall into one of the following categories: structural, vegetative, or land management measures.
Conservation technical assistance, administered by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and local conservation districts, provides technical assistance to farmers for planning and implementing conservation systems and practices. More broadly, technical assistance means technical information and tools needed for the conservation of natural resources on agricultural land, including technical services provided directly to farmers as well as the technical infrastructure (research, training, standards, monitoring, etc.) needed to support the delivery of technical services.
Payments to producers to cover a specified portion of the cost of installing, implementing, or maintaining a conservation practice.
Federally subsidized insurance policies that protect farmers from crop losses due to natural hazards. A subsidized multiperil federal insurance program, administered by the USDA’s Risk Management Agency, is available to most farmers. Federal crop insurance is sold and serviced through private insurance companies. The Federal Government subsidizes a portion of the premium, as well as some administrative and operating expenses of the private companies. The Federal Crop Insurance Corporation (FCIC) reinsures the companies by absorbing the losses of the program when indemnities exceed total premiums. Various types of yield and revenue insurance products are available for major crops. Hail and fire insurance are offered through private companies without federal subsidy.
Land used primarily for production of row crops, close-growing crops, and fruit and nut crops. It includes cultivated and non-cultivated acreage, but not land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program.
Direct farm loans are made by USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) to family-size farmers and ranchers who cannot obtain commercial credit from conventional lenders. FSA also services these loans and provides supervision and credit counseling so borrowers have a better chance for success. Farm Ownership (FO), Operating (OL), Microloan, Emergency, and Youth loans are the main types of loans available under the direct farm loan programs. A substantial portion of direct loan funds is set aside each year for loans to minority and woman applicants and to beginning farmers. Direct loan applications are made at the local FSA office.
The legislative authority under which the Farmers Market and Local Foods Promotion Program and other related programs administered by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service operate. Can include farmers’ markets, farm stands, roadside stands, community-supported agriculture, pick-your-own farms, Internet marketing, and other niche direct markets.
Funding dependent upon the annual Congressional appropriations process. This funding is provided at the discretion or the Appropriations Committees in the House and Senate (see Appropriations for more information).
Debit card technology used for issuing SNAP (food stamp) benefits and potentially other nutrition assistance programs. The Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program is scheduled to fully change over from coupons to EBT by 2020.
Farm Ownership (FO) loans may be made by the Farm Service Agency (FSA) to help farmers purchase farmland, construct or repair buildings and other fixtures, develop farmland to promote soil and water conservation, or to refinance debt. FO loans are made under both guaranteed and direct loan programs, and are made to producers unable to obtain credit from conventional lenders.
The farm bill for Fiscal Years 2002 through 2007. The legislation was signed into law on May 13, 2002. This farm bill re-introduced counter-cyclical farm program payments, introduced the Conservation Security Program, and was the first farm bill to include a separate energy title.
USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) administers and manages farm commodity, credit, disaster, and loan programs through a network of federal, state and county offices. It also manages the Conservation Reserve Program, Conservation Reserve Program-Transition Incentives Program, and the Organic Certification Cost-Share Program.
The federally owned and operated corporation within USDA that promotes the economic stability of agriculture through a system of highly subsidized crop insurance.
The farm bill for 1996-2002. The legislation was signed into law on April 4, 1996. The bill is sometimes referred to as the “Freedom to Farm Act” for its policy shift ending all forms of supply management, the mainstay of farm programs since the Great Depression. The bill also consolidated many older conservation programs into the new Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
A rule promulgated by an administrative agency after the public has had an opportunity to comment on the proposed rule and/or an interim final rule that translates statutory authority into programmatic details used to actually administer a policy or program.
The federal government’s annual accounting period. It begins October 1 and ends on the following September 30. A fiscal year is designated by the calendar year in which it ends and is often referred to with the abbreviation FY.
A USDA agency that works to end hunger and obesity through the administration of 15 federal nutrition assistance programs including SNAP (food stamps), WIC, and school meals. FNS administers the Farm to School grant program as well as the Farmers Market Nutrition Program and Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program.
The farm bill for Fiscal Years 1991 through 1995. The legislation was signed into law on November 28, 1990. The longest farm bill (before or since), it included 25 titles and introduced the full-fledged Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, the Wetlands Reserve Program, the Organic Food Production Act, farm program planting flexibility for sustainable farmers, the National Research Initiative, the first ever beginning farmer credit provisions, and grants for outreach to minority farmers, among many others.
The farm bill for 1986-1990. The farm bill was signed into law on December 23, 1985. The law established marketing loans and loan deficiency payments, and included the first major conservation title in a farm bill, creating conservation conditions in return for the receipt of farm program benefits and establishing the Conservation Reserve Program.
Research conducted primarily to increase scientific knowledge or understanding that might have broad potential application but not necessarily for direct application or new commercial products or processes.
Farm Service Agency (FSA) and Rural Business-Cooperative Service (RBS) guarantees loans by private commercial lenders (e.g., banks, Farm Credit System institutions, credit unions, etc.), generally for between 80 and 95 percent of any loss of principal and interest on a loan. The guarantee permits lenders to extend credit to farmers or businesses that do not meet the lenders’ normal underwriting criteria. In the case of FSA, guaranteed loans are made both for farm ownership (FO) and operating (OL) purposes.
Soils with an erodibility index (EI) equal to or greater than eight are defined as HEL. An EI of eight indicates that without any cover or conservation practices, the soil will erode at a rate eight times the soil tolerance level. Fields containing at least one-third or 50 acres (whichever is less) of HEL are designated as highly erodible for the purpose of conservation compliance and sodbuster.
Payments to producers in an amount or at a rate necessary to encourage producers to adopt one or more land management practices.
The portion of a grant that covers general operating expenses and administrative activities not directly related to activities sponsored by the grant. Generally program rules will include a specific limit on the amount of indirect costs, if any, for which grant funds may be used.
USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) defines integrated research as bringing the three components of the agricultural knowledge system (research, education, and extension) together around a problem area or activity. Integrated projects must involve at least two out of the three components.
A rule promulgated by an administrative agency that goes into effect when it is published, but will be open for public comment for a specific period of time and then potentially revised and issued as a final rule.
Institutions of higher education that have been designated by its state legislature or Congress to receive unique federal support under the Morrill Acts, the Hatch Act, the Smith-Lever Act, and other related federal laws.
Under several federal agricultural programs, producers who lack the income or asset base to obtain credit or require additional assistance are referred to as limited-resource producers. USDA further refined the definition through program guidance to mean farmers and ranchers with (a) direct or indirect gross farm sales of $180,300 or less (for FY 2020, adjusted for inflation each year) in each of the previous 2 years; and (b) total household income at or below the national poverty level for a family of four OR less than 50 percent of county median household income in each of the previous two years. For further information, refer to USDA’s Limited Resource Self-Determination Tool.
A statutory commitment by the federal government to pay part or all of a loan’s principal and interest to a lender or the holder of a security in case the borrower defaults.
Changes in the management of agricultural production in the context of environmental programs, e.g., nutrient or manure management, integrated pest management, irrigation management, tillage or residue management, grazing management, etc.
Funding not controlled by annual decisions of Congress in the annual appropriation bills. These funds are automatically obligated by virtue of previously-enacted laws. In the farm bill context, commodity programs, SNAP (food stamps), many conservation programs, and some research, marketing, rural development, and renewable energy programs receive mandatory funding through the farm bill. Also referred to as “direct” spending. “Entitlement” programs represent a specific type of mandatory spending in which recipients who qualify are entitled to the benefit without a specified funding limit for the program. Commodity programs and SNAP (food stamps), as well as Social Security and Medicare, are examples of entitlement programs.
Funds that a grant recipient must provide from their own funds or from another source as a condition for receiving grant funds from a particular federal program. For some federal programs, matching funds may be “in cash” or “in kind” or in a combination. Many federal programs prohibit the match from being funding from another federal program.
The extramural research agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture that administers competitive grants programs that fund agricultural research, education, and extension. The 2008 Farm Bill changed the name of USDA’s Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES) to NIFA beginning October 1, 2009. The Director of NIFA must be both a scientist and appointed by the President for a 6-year term. The Director reports directly to the Secretary of Agriculture rather than through the Under Secretary for Research, Education and Extension.
USDA organic regulatory program for organic agriculture, established under the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (part of the 1990 Farm Bill), that sets production, handling, and labeling standards for organic agricultural products. The NOP also accredits the certifying agents (foreign and domestic) who inspect organic production and handling operations to certify that they meet USDA standards.
NRCS is the Federal agency that works in partnership with America’s private landowners and managers to conserve and sustain their soil, water, and other natural resources. NRCS provides technical and financial assistance to accomplish these goals through programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
A formal statement published in the Federal Register announcing the availability of funds for a specific program and outlining how to apply for funds. See also “Notice of Solicitation of Applications.”
A formal statement published in the Federal Register announcing the solicitation of applications for a specific program. See also “Notice of Funding Availability.”
Farm Service Agency (FSA) operating loans (OL) may be used to purchase livestock, farm equipment, feed, seed, fuel, farm chemicals, insurance, and other operating expenses. Operating Loans can also be used to pay for minor improvements to buildings, costs associated with land and water development, family living expenses, and to refinance debts under certain conditions. Operating loans are made under both direct and guaranteed programs to producers who cannot obtain funding without assistance from conventional lenders.
The process by which agricultural products grown and processed according to USDA’s national organic standards are approved by a USDA-accredited State or private certification organization. Certifying agents review applications from farmers and processors for certification eligibility and qualified inspectors conduct annual onsite inspections of organic operations. Certifying agents determine whether operators are in compliance with organic production standards.
Production system managed in accordance with the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 and subsequent Federal regulations. Organic production systems respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.
An owner, operator, landlord, tenant, or sharecropper who shares in the risk of producing a crop and is entitled to share in the crop available for marketing from the farm, or would have shared had the crop been produced. As used in the farm bill, a producer includes crop share landlords but does not include cash rent landlords.
A proposed rule describes how an agency will implement a federal program. It provides the justification and analysis behind the need for a rule and the agency’s response to any public comment submitted in response to an advance notice of proposed rulemaking if there was an advance notice. It also includes the actual proposed regulatory language for the rule. Once a proposed rule is published, a public comment period begins, allowing the public to submit written comments to the agency. The agency is required to respond to each distinct issue raised in the comments. Depending on the complexity of the rule, comment periods may last for 30 days or a multi-month period of time.
A formal statement published in the Federal Register inviting submission of grant applications for a specific program.
A formal statement published in the Federal Register inviting submission of grant proposals for a specific program.
The RMA is a USDA agency that administers programs of the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation.
USDA agency that provides technical assistance, grants, loans, and loan guarantees to help promote community and economic development in rural areas by supporting projects such as water and sewer systems, housing, health clinics, emergency service facilities, electric and telephone service, and rural businesses (including those based in agriculture, food, and farming).
A sole proprietorship or business entity with not more than 10 full-time equivalent employees located in a rural area.
A farmer or rancher who is a member of a group whose members have been subjected to racial or ethnic (and in some cases gender) prejudice because of his or her identity as a member of the group. The definition of SDA farmers varies by Title within the farm bill; some titles include gender and some are limited to racial or ethnic groups.
A program administered by FNS that provides federal grants to States for supplemental foods, health care referrals, and nutrition education for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, and non-breastfeeding postpartum women, and to infants and children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk.
Fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, nursery crops, and floriculture. Also referred to as horticulture crops.
A term used in the implementation of the Conservation Stewardship Program to describe the level of natural resource conservation and environmental management required under the CSP. The threshold level is one that improves and conserves the quality and condition of a natural resource and is generally the level that ensures the resource does not degrade but instead improves or regenerates.
A practice that involves a constructed facility, land shaping, or permanent vegetative cover designed to preserve soil; reduce runoff of nutrient, sediment, and pesticides; enhance wildlife habitat; or other purposes. Examples include animal waste-management facilities, terraces, grassed waterways, contour grass strips, filter strips, tailwater pits, permanent wildlife habitats, and constructed wetlands. Note: Sometimes permanent vegetative cover practices are included as structural practices and sometimes they are referred to separately as vegetative practices.
As of October 1, 2008 the name for the federal entitlement program, formerly known as the Federal Food Stamp Program, which provides low-income Americans with monthly cash benefits (distributed electronically through EBT cards) to help supplement an individual or family’s income for the purchase of nutritious food.
A farmer or rancher who has served in the active military, naval, or air service, and who was discharged or released therefrom under conditions other than dishonorable. Many programs offer special incentives or priority for veteran farmers or ranchers. However, additional program specific criteria may apply, such as having obtained veteran status within previous 10 years or having ten years or less of farming experience.
As the main USDA webpage for the 2018 Farm Bill, this site contains up to date information on important Farm Bill meeting dates and deadlines, current Farm Bill news, and the 2018 Farm Bill itself. The webpage also includes a guide describing assistance available to producers through the 2018 Farm Bill, and it is available in Hmong, Mandarin, Spanish, and Vietnamese.
Additionally, USDA factsheets outline key changes to FSA, NRCS, and RMA programs brought about by the new Farm Bill. This webpage includes information on programs now available for hemp growers.
The Congressional Research Service (CRS) periodically publishes reports on various Farm Bill topics. This report contains a summary and side-by side comparison of the new Farm Bill with previous legislation, and this report includes a short two-page summary on some key changes made in the 2018 Farm Bill and historical trends, as well as its estimated cost. For a quick reference guide on leading policies and programs within each title of the bill, refer to this report. CRS reports cover a wide array of farm bill topics and issues, which can be found by searching on their website.
Includes information on the current activities of the Congressional authorizing Committees that have jurisdiction over the farm bill. This includes farm bill implementation and oversight activities, as well as archived reports, hearing transcripts, and other documents leading up to passage of the 2018 Farm Bill.
Up to date information on the House and Senate appropriation subcommittees that oversee funding for many USDA farm bill programs.
Farm Bills Pages: Full text and resources for all U.S. Farm Bills from 1933 to the present
CRS Reports Page: CRS is the public policy research arm of the United States Congress. Through Congress, the National Agricultural Law Center periodically receives CRS reports related to agriculture and food issues. New and updated reports are posted as they are obtained.
The Center for Effective Government (CEG), formerly known as OMB Watch, is a leading nonpartisan independent watchdog, which champions good government reforms to achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government. In 2016, CEG joined the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) to continue its mission to improve access to decision-makers and energize citizen participation. Their website includes a wide range of publications, blogs, and other resources that examine regulatory policy, federal budget, and government actions.
Published by the Office of the Federal Register, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the Federal Register is the official daily publication for rules, proposed rules, and notices of Federal agencies and organizations, as well as executive orders and other presidential documents.
ERS is USDA’s economic policy analysis agency, and the ERS website presents highlights and some economic implications of the Farm Bill’s new programs and provisions.
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