Information Technology Provisions in the 2014 Farm Bill

Published: February 05, 2014

USDABig DataPolicy and Legislation

The latest Farm Bill (H.R. 2642) is making its way through Congress and President Obama is expected to sign it. Officially titled the “Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013,” the legislation contains several information technology provisions, including a couple that pertain directly to the Department of Agriculture’s use of big data analytics.

After years of delay, the latest Farm Bill (H.R. 2642) is making its way through Congress. President Obama is expected to sign the bill once it clears the Senate. Officially titled the “Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013,” the legislation contains a lot more than provisions applying to agricultural subsidies and oversight. There are several information technology provisions as well that will be of interest to the contractor community. These provisions are particularly relevant to the Department of Agriculture’s use of big data analytics, which Congress is pushing the agency to use.

Ferreting Out Fraud

In 2013 the Federal Crop Insurance Program (FCIP) paid out $17.3 billion to American farmers for crop losses due to extreme weather conditions. This amount was a record for the program and that kind of money tends to draw attention. Suspecting that fraud may account for a certain percentage of the payments being made, Section 1107 directs that the Secretary of Agriculture “use all available information and analysis, including data mining, to check for anomalies in the provision of revenue loss coverage payments.”

While this provision does not explicitly demand that the Risk Management Agency acquire data mining tools it can use to find “anomalies,” it does suggest there is a need for such tools at the RMA that industry may want to investigate. However, before anyone gets too excited and begins calling around the RMA, be aware that there is an entrenched IT provider to contend with. Presumably any investment made in response to provision 1107 would be part of the RMA’s Emerging Information Technology Architecture (EITA) efforts, which are intended to “replace mission-critical legacy financial and business systems that are at or past end-of-life and unable to meet the demands of the current Risk Management Program.” This would suggest that any data mining tools required are likely, but not guaranteed, to be procured under a $208 million IT services contract awarded to SAIC in 2011 (Contract #GST0011AJ0019).

Pine Needles in Haystacks

AG doesn’t just insure crops, it also counts trees. In an effort to get a better handle on U.S. forest inventory, Section 7401 directs the Secretary of Agriculture to revise the USDA’s strategic plan for forest inventory and analysis. The key to collecting the required data is collaboration between “the Natural Resources Conservation Service, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and United States Geological Survey to integrate remote sensing, spatial analysis techniques, and other new technologies in the forest inventory and analysis program.”

Again, it’s impossible at this point to know how the U.S. Forest Service will fulfill this requirement. FS has been working for years to upgrade its IT systems. Most of this investment takes place under the Forest Service Computer Base (FSCB) program, with work being performed by a number of industry partners. The FSCB contract I have my eye on that could be relevant to Section 7401 is #IND11PC40028, held by Snap, Inc. An 8a IT company, Snap provides computing infrastructure support to the Forest Service under this contract. Presumably, integrating data from multiple agency sources for the forest inventory program would require work on the systems for which Snap provides support. Should this not be the case, then we could see a solicitation for this requirement in FY 2014.

$55 Million to Go Organic

The final provision worth examining from an IT perspective is Section 9004 concerning organic agriculture. Section 9004 is the only provision in the Farm Bill that explicitly directs the Secretary of Agriculture to make an IT investment. Specifically, “the Secretary shall modernize database and technology systems of the national organic program” and the program will receive $11 million each fiscal year from 2014 to 2018 to get the job done. In short, the USDA will be throwing $55 million at the modernization effort, making this an effort worth keeping your eye on.