As the Farm Bill Conference Kicks Off, A Reminder of What’s At Stake
October 30, 2013
Today marks the start of official conference negotiations over the farm bill, during which appointed members of the House and Senate will work reconcile two farm bills into one final conference report. By all accounts the task of reconciling the two chambers’ proposed bills will be a difficult one, but it is also critically important: the final product will determine policy on a host of issues for the next five years, and may have wide-reaching implications for many years beyond that.
Amidst the furor over which disagreements will shape the broad contours of the farm bill debate – such as how the conferees will reconcile divergent cuts to SNAP or reshape commodity programs – we’ve been focusing this fall on highlighting what else is at stake in this farm bill process.
Farm bill programs that keep our families fed and healthy, build local economies, protect and restore natural resources, and foster the next generation of farmers are still a fairly small fraction of total farm bill spending, but they have an outsize impact – and they are helping to create the foundation for a more a more sustainable and equitable farm and food system in America.
Critically, nearly all of these innovative programs were denied funding in the farm bill extension that was negotiated between Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and passed by Congress on January 1 of this year – and they continue to languish without funding until Congress passes a full, fair farm bill.
In case you missed them, here’s a recap of our posts on some of the most critical programs currently stranded:
- Programs that foster the next generation of farmers.
Although agriculture remains a bright spot in our nation’s economy, barriers to entry have also made it one of the hardest careers to pursue. The fastest growing segment of our nation’s farming population are now those over 65, and within the next decade, the majority of American farmers will be retirees. These alarming trends have served as a wake up call to Congress that more needs to be done to help young and aspiring farmers get started in agriculture. Several programs that have proven tremendously important in addressing these barriers have been unfortunate casualties of Congress’s inability to pass a farm bill; these “stranded” programs include the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP), the Conservation Reserve Transition Incentives Program (CRP-TIP), and the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Program (also known as the Section 2501 program).
- Programs that spur economic development through local foods and renewable energy.
The soaring consumer demand for food and agricultural products from local farmers and regional markets, along with slow growth and out-migration in large swaths of rural America, present a unique set of challenges. Local and regional farm and food-related businesses, are a critical component to addressing those challenges by helping to create new jobs, bolster farm incomes, reverse out-migration, and enhance access to fresh and healthy foods. Over the past decade, Congress has created several programs in the Farm Bill that help farmers and local food businesses scale up in the marketplace, provide rural entrepreneurs and communities with a stronger financial footing, and spur energy conservation and renewable energy generation. These successful programs include the Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP), Value-Added Producer Grants Program (VAPG), and Rural Energy for America Program (REAP).
- Programs that support organic farmers.
Organic agriculture has experienced tremendous growth over the past few decades, as more farmers began to look at ways to grow crops without pesticides and look for more systems-based approaches to pest management and crop fertility. In the early 2000s, USDA finalized the primary regulations for certified organic production, and the use of the USDA certified organic label went into effect. Over the past decade, Congress has created several key federal programs aimed at addressing the significant shortcomings in USDA resources and investments in organic agriculture. Together these programs have addressed research and data needs of organic producers, and have helped small and mid-sized organic growers offset the annual cost of certification, allowing them to access organic markets. Three key farm bill programs have formed the foundation that has underpinned the success of organic farmers over the past decade, including the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), the Organic Production and Market Data Initiatives (ODI), and the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program (NOCCSP).
- Programs that support conservation of water, soil, and wildlife.
Wetlands and grasslands are some of the most ecologically important and sensitive lands in the world. More than half of all North American bird species and one-third of endangered and threatened species rely on wetlands as feeding or nesting grounds. Both wetlands and grasslands also provide critical flood prevention and water filtration services. Without grasslands to hold soil in place, erosion would quickly choke our waterways and degrade water quality for downstream users. However, since the 1600s, over half of the natural wetlands and 95 percent of the native prairie in the lower 48 states have been converted, and we continue to lose both grasslands and wetlands at a rapid pace. The farm bill is the primary tool for helping producers conserve resources on private lands. Several programs that have proven tremendously important in conserving and enhancing these environmental and economic resources have been unfortunate casualties of Congress’s inability to pass a new farm bill. Four programs—the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), Grassland Reserve Program (GRP), Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), and Chesapeake Bay Conservation Initiative (CBWI)—were frozen in place when the 2008 Farm Bill extension expired on October 1.
Without a new farm bill — or at the very least a modified, reform-oriented extension of the current farm bill — the innovative programs and policies that invest in the future of healthy farms, food, and people are completely derailed. Put bluntly, this represents hundreds of millions of disinvestment in a better food and farm future that we may never get back.
The conference negotiations beginning today represent an opportunity for Congress to get our nation’s food and farm policy back on track – including robust funding for the programs that keep our families fed and healthy, build local economies, protect and restore natural resources, and spur the next generation of farmers.
Beginning and Minority Farmers, Farm Bill, Local & Regional Food Systems, Organic