The Farm Bill: A Pawn in a Bigger Game?
By Mary Fund
The Farm Bill used to be a place for political compromise. Rural interests would combine with urban priorities to ensure continuity of safety nets and conservation and marketing assistance for the food producers, and safety nets of food access for the poor or low income. Now the only sure thing appears to be that it is anyone’s guess on the final timing and content of the 2018 Farm Bill.
The current Farm Bill expires September 30, 2018. On May 18, the House version of the 2018 Farm Bill was defeated on the House floor. As this goes to press, the Senate Agriculture Committee just released its version, which has significant differences from the earlier House bill. The clock is ticking to see what if anything can pass this deeply divided Congress.
The House Farm Bill has multiple flaws, and it represents a huge step backward from the kind of policy that even begins to address the natural resource challenges we are facing. Nor did it acknowledge in any way the lack of a level playing field in terms of commodity subsidies or opportunities for beginning farmers, or the needs of the poor or low income.
For instance, it zeroed out the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the innovative program with a whole farm approach to conservation and resource management. It rewrote the federal nutrition program (SNAP) so that an estimated two million would be kicked off the program rolls, called for a $23 billion cut over ten years, and added a work requirement based on no evidence that such requirements actually help people out of poverty. And while requiring more people to work for SNAP benefits, the bill opens new loopholes for receiving farm subsidies– by relaxing the “actively engaged in farming” definitions so that non-farm/non-working “farmers” can receive payments, further padding the pockets of large farmers and investors, and encouraging even greater consolidation of both land and financial resources.
But the bill was not defeated on its lack of merits. It was defeated by the divisive issue of immigration. The Freedom Caucus and other conservative House members want a vote on immigration law (the Dreamer Act) for their vote to pass a Farm Bill– specifically to knock down the Dreamer Act that allows immigrants who arrived as minors without legal permission to stay and give them a path to citizenship.
This is where it stands at this writing in early June. House leaders are scrambling to bring the immigration issue to a vote to garner enough votes to pass the Farm Bill. But even if it passes the House, Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, our own Kansas Senator, has already said the House bill stands no chance in the Senate. Now that the Senate Ag Committee has released its version, the real wrangling begins.
If no bill is passed before September 30, a Continuing Resolution is likely to keep basic programs operational. But we would lose a number of non-permanent programs that rely on annual authorization and appropriations such as the Value Added Producer Program, National Organic Certification Cost-share, Risk Management Education, and local and regional food promotion programs. These are smaller programs with small pots of funding, but they are critical to diversifying agricultural operations and the food system.
We have not had a chance to review the Senate Ag Committee bill in detail but a quick scan of communication from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition indicates it is a big improvement on the House version. It will be the best avenue to ensure local/regional food programs, conservation, and efforts to level the playing field are not lost or damaged. Senate floor action will happen over the next few weeks. Then House and Senate will work to come up with a compromise bill by September end.
But beware of the prevailing political climate where the law making process is used to tack on unrelated or irrelevant issues, with a zero tolerance for compromise and no flexibility. How far will our state’s Congressional leadership go to ensure that the Farm Bill does not become a pawn in a bigger game that we pay for with our farm and food security?
Next Steps? While the Farm Bill covers a vast territory in terms of food and agriculture issues, KRC will be watching the following issues in particular to promote diversification and opportunity in the nation’s food system:
1) Support the Local FARMS Act (Local Food and Regional Market Supply Act) in the Farm Bill. Key programs that help farmers reach new markets, increase access to healthy food for the low income elderly and children, and develop new infrastructure for farm to fork efforts through outreach, cost-share and technical assistance include: Value Added Producer Grants Program, Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program, Senior Farmers Market Program, National Organic Certification Cost-share program, and Food Safety Outreach Program (that helped farmers meet new food safety compliance rules). Kansas farmers use these programs to diversify their operations and find new markets. Consumers benefit by increased availability of local healthy food. These programs were all eliminated in the House bill.
2) Support working lands conservation programs through the GROW Act. The GROW Act (Give Our Resources the Opportunity to Work) lays out a comprehensive strategy to improve soil health and water quality. It reforms the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to target federal dollars in ways that protect the most sensitive acres while empowering producers to adopt and actively manage high-level conservation activities on working lands.
3) Support meaningful payment limitations across farm subsidy programs. Payment limits are debated every single farm bill. Basically payment reform hinges on the definition of what constitutes farm management. The House bill undoes modest provisions made in the 2014 farm bill and opens the door to further land and economic consolidation and blatant abuse of taxpayer dollars by allowing corporations and individuals to reorganize to receive multiple payments. It is hypocritical to consider adding work requirements to recipients of America’s Supplemental Nutrition Program (SNAP) program while removing the “work requirements” for farmers, non-farmers and landowners to receive increased subsidies.
4) Support strong organic standards through the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), Organic Certification Cost-share and organic research. Organic farming offers multiple benefits to conservation and resource stewardship, climate change mitigation, and to farmers seeking to take advantage of the growing organic economic sector. Changes proposed so far would weaken the federal organic standards, and open the NOSB to more corporate industry members. This benefits the corporate organic industry sector and largest players, while taking control away from family farmers and consumers, and paves the way to gut the organic sector as standards would become meaningless.
All farmers and ranchers are dealing with high levels of stress as trade wars loom, conventional commodity prices remain low, and input costs remain high. Consumers and citizens demand healthier food, more locally sourced products and more economic opportunities, which agriculture and food system related businesses can provide. Thus the 2018 Farm Bill is crucial to our food and farm future. KRC will be sending electronic updates over the next few weeks.
Because the Senate Ag Committee version came out just as this was going to press, KRC will be sending out electronic updates with analysis and alerts over the next few weeks.
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