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Farm Bill Negotiators Hold First Public Meeting

September 6, 2018


First meeting of the Farm Bill Conference Committee. Photo credit: Agri-Pulse.

Growing a more just and sustainable food and farm system through the farm bill, a massive package of legislation that is passed roughly every five years, is among the main priorities of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC). Congressional negotiators just held their first official public meeting to discuss the nation’s next farm bill, which has a tremendous impact on every part of our food system — from how food is grown to who has access to it. The 2018 Farm Bill Conference Committee, which met for the first time on September 5, now has the daunting task before it of trying to finalize a new farm bill before the current one expires on September 30, 2018.

This first meeting sets the stage for what is likely to be a difficult negotiation period. In this post we will provide a brief overview of the major themes discussed by the Committee during its first meeting, as well as an analysis of the issues at play and their potential impact on family farms and sustainable agriculture.

Background

In order to reach a final bill, the Committee must first reconcile the two very different draft farm bills passed by the House and the Senate. While this week’s meeting was the first of the full Conference Committee, the leaders of the Committee — Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee Pat Roberts (R-KS), Ranking Member Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee Mike Conaway (R-TX), Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-MN) — have been meeting since early August to try and iron out the differences between the two bills. At this week’s meeting, conferees gave brief opening statements and began laying out their positions ahead of what will likely be tense series of debates.

There are approximately 10 working legislative days left in the month during which Committee members must attempt to reconcile the chambers’ vastly different approaches to nutrition policy, working lands conservation, local and regional market development, and commodity program reforms. For a detailed summary of the differences between the House and Senate bills relative to the priorities of the sustainable food and farming community, see NSAC’s 2018 Guide to the 2018 Farm Bill Conference Process.

NSAC is strongly urging members of the Conference Committee to move forward with a final farm bill patterned on the bipartisan Senate bill before the 2014 Farm Bill expires at the end of the month. However, if past is prologue, there is a good chance that the Committee will not be able to bridge the chasm between the two bills by that deadline. If the next farm bill is not finalized on time, numerous “tiny but mighty” farm bill programs that support family farmers and food-producing communities will effectively shut down in terms of new funding and grant opportunities. Without renewed funding either in the next farm bill or in an extension package, these programs will be unable to provide new funding for qualified projects in for fiscal year 2019.

Nutrition Support

One of the most startling differences between the House and the Senate draft farm bills was in the way each addressed hunger and nutrition provisions – in particular, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The hyper-partisan House Farm Bill, which passed by a razor-slim margin of two votes after initially failing on the floor, proposed dramatic cuts (over $20 billion) and policy changes to SNAP that concerned many in the anti-hunger and agricultural communities. In contrast, the Senate Bill, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support (86-11), rejected the House’s controversial changes to SNAP and left program funding in tact. The chasm between the two chambers’ bills, as well as between individual members, on this important issue was on full display during the Farm Bill Conference Committee’s initial meeting.

Chairman Conaway initially sent signals that there could be a willingness in the House to compromise around the most controversial aspects of their bill, though details were not immediately forthcoming. In the Committee meeting, however, nearly all House Republican members doubled-down on their support for the House bill’s controversial changes to SNAP. Senate Agriculture Committee leaders and House Democrats held firm in their opposition to the House’s SNAP provisions.

Conservation

Another major issue of contention was how each chamber addressed the farm bill’s Conservation Title – in particular, how each would approach working lands conservation programs. The House bill would severely weaken farmers’ ability to participate in voluntary conservation programs by eliminating the nation’s largest and only comprehensive working lands conservation program: the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). Though many members have tried to justify this move by claiming that CSP’s activities are simply folded into the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), in reality the House bill retains none of the core components of the program.

The bipartisan Senate bill, in contrast, retains both working lands conservation programs and makes critical improvements to increase program access, flexibility, and conservation benefits. NSAC applauds the Conferees who used their opening remarks to speak on the importance of CSP; this included Senators Jonni Ernst (R-IA) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH), lead co-sponsors of the bipartisan Give our Resources the Opportunity to Work (GROW) Act.

We were disappointed, however, that some House Conferees continued to support a partisan approach to conservation. We thank Representatives Tim Walz (D-MN), Marcia Fudge (D-OH), Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM), and Maxine Waters (D-CA) for taking a strong stand against the elimination of CSP in their opening remarks. Representative Walz, lead co-sponsor of the Strengthening Our Investment in Land (SOIL) Stewardship Act, drove home the importance of protecting and enhancing CSP in his comments:

“…Working lands conservation is critical…When farmers plant cover crops it sequesters carbon and mitigates climate change. When farmers nurture soil it decreases risk of flooding and drought…We must ensure that in this final bill CSP is in there.”

Several House Conferees attempted to paint the elimination of CSP as a simple “consolidation” or “merger” of programs. In fact, the House bill would decimate the core components of CSP that support advanced stewardship. The House bill also slashes total funding for working lands conservation nationwide, severely limiting the tools that farmers and ranchers have to voluntarily take on conservation efforts on their land in agricultural production.

On top of the nationwide implications of eliminating CSP, states would also see a dramatic redistribution of working lands conservation funding (with significant funding taken away from many agricultural states). NSAC recently released a new report using data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to show that under the House bill, billions of dollars in conservation assistance would be lost in the Midwest, the Delta, the Plains, and the Pacific Northwest. Only two states would significantly benefit if the House plan were to be adopted: California and Texas. The Senate’s approach to working lands conservation programs would maintain a level playing field for all regions of the country by maintaining a diversity of allocation methods.

Subsidy Caps

Huge differences also remain to be settled on the issue of whether or not there should be limits to the amount of commodity subsidy payments that any one farm can receive in a given year. Though commodity program payment limits have been part of farm bills going all the way back to 1970, the current complex set of rules are riddled with loopholes. These provisions open opportunities to abuse the subsidy programs by allowing payments well beyond the nominal annual limit of $125,000 ($250,000 for couples), as included in the current farm bill. A recent report from the U.S Government Accountability Office, a federal body which provides research and advice to Congress, found that in one case a single farm received $3.7 million in commodity subsidies in a single year because of the system’s loopholes – even though none of that money went to anyone actually working the land.

Not surprisingly, the two draft bills vary dramatically when it comes to addressing commodity programs and payment limitations. The House bill actually makes the problem worse by adding so many new loopholes as to effectively eradicate any semblance of payment “limitations.” Thankfully, the Senate bill does attempt to address these problems by moving to make the nominal limit the real limit and closing the most widely used of the loopholes. During the Committee meeting, several Republican conferees (all from southern states) voiced opposition to the Senate’s common sense reforms. Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Dick Durbin (D-IL), along with Representatives Mark Meadows (R-NC) and Ron Kind (D-WI) are expected to send a letter to the conferees insisting that the Senate reforms are included in the final package.

Tiny but Mighty

On the farm bill’s “tiny but mighty” programs, which are programs with relatively small budgets that provide immense support for family farmers and local, diversified, and organic food systems, the differences between the two draft bills are also quite dramatic.

The House bill includes much-needed funding increases for organic research and nutrition incentives; however, it fails to increase investments in beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers relative to the last farm bill. It also eliminates all farm bill funding for programs that support local food and farmers markets, value-added agriculture, organic certification cost-share, and rural business development. In contrast, the Senate draft bill provides robust permanent baseline funding for programs that support beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, organic research, value-added agriculture, and the creation and expansion of local and regional food economies. Recognizing the value of these tiny but mighty programs to family farmers and their communities, NSAC strongly supports the provisions of the Senate farm bill.

NSAC acknowledges and extends our thanks to those Senators and Representatives who spoke to the need to invest in the “tiny but mighty” programs in their opening remarks. Members who spoke in support of robust funding for local food programs include Ranking Member Senator Stabenow (D-MI) and Senator Brown (D-OH), as well as Representatives Rodney Davis (R-IL), Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM), Alma Adams (D-NC) and Stacey Plaskett (D-VI). Senators Stabenow and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and Representatives Lujan Grisham, Plaskett, Waters, and David Scott (D-GA) also spoke in support of providing robust permanent funding for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmer and rancher programs.

Next Steps

Following the conclusion of yesterday’s meeting, a lot of work remains ahead of the Committee if they hope to reconcile the two versions of the farm bill before the September 30 deadline. Going forward, debate and negotiations will mostly be handled by the four Committee leaders, and much of the discussion will take place behind closed doors. Whether or not they will be able to strike a deal before the end of the month remains to be seen.

Every farm bill fundamentally affects our food and farm systems for a generation and then some. It is therefore critical for all those invested in a sustainable and equitable food system to stay informed and engaged throughout this critical period. NSAC will continue to monitor and report on news from conference process as it happens, and will provided detailed analysis of issues on our blog. For grassroots engagement opportunities, check out our Take Action! page.


Categories: Beginning and Minority Farmers, Commodity, Crop Insurance & Credit Programs, Conservation, Energy & Environment, Farm Bill, Food Safety, Local & Regional Food Systems, Marketing and Labeling, Nutrition & Food Access, Organic, Research, Education & Extension, Rural Development


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