June 14, 2018
Every five years or so, Congress reauthorizes the federal farm bill, a large and complex package of legislation that affects all facets of food and agriculture policy in the U.S. The current farm bill, which Congress passed in 2014, expires on September 30, 2018. The 2018 Farm Bill must be passed before September 30 in order to make much-needed improvements to farm and food programs; if the bill is not finalized on time, not only will these improvements not be made, but dozens of important programs would also be at risk of expiring without direct congressional action.
Yesterday, the Senate Agriculture Committee voted 20–1 to pass its version of the next farm bill – the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (S. 3042). Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) was the lone dissenter, voting against the bill after he was denied a vote, on a technicality, on his priority amendment to lower and tighten the cap on annual per farm commodity subsidies. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) strongly backs his amendment and we expressed our displeasure with the vote denial yesterday.
The Senate Committee leadership first released their draft bill last Friday, and yesterday modifications to that bill were made by the full Committee through a series of adopted amendments.
For full details on the initial Senate bill (aka the “Chairman’s Mark”), see our six-part deep dive blog series.
In this post, we will detail the major changes to the Chairman’s mark that were debated during the Committee markup. In addition to the half dozen or so standalone amendments that were introduced and debated during the Senate Committee markup, we will also provide an overview of the “manager’s amendment,” a package of 66 amendments that were introduced in an “en bloc” and passed by a voice vote.
One of NSAC’s top priorities for Senate Committee markup was to limit the size of commodity subsidy payments and reform the eligibility rules for such payments. Senator Grassley had been championing this effort and working with Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) to negotiate language that would restore accountability and fairness to Title I (Commodities). In a strange turn of events, however, Senator Grassley was unable to bring his reform amendment to a vote due to a legislative drafting technicality that under normal Senate functioning would not have stood in the way of debating and voting on the amendment.
The amendment would place a hard cap on the total amount of commodity program payments and benefits any one farm can receive annually, and would strengthen “actively engaged” rules to ensure that large operations cannot endlessly multiply payments by adding non-farm investors and absentee “managers” to their farming business. It is unfortunate the Committee missed an important opportunity to close the egregious loopholes of the commodity subsidy programs. Attention now, however, turns to Senate floor action where there is still opportunity for this amendment to be debated and adopted. NSAC will be urging Senate leadership to allow Senator Grassley’s amendment to come to a vote when the bill moves to the floor, and we urge all members of the Senate to support this important provision.
The manager’s amendment included several important changes in line with NSAC’s conservation priorities that we worked on behind the scenes with the Senate sponsors:
Working Lands Conservation Programs
While we remain extremely disappointed that the Senate bill cuts funding for working lands conservation programs, we are pleased that the manager’s amendment made important policy reforms to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) primary working lands conservation programs, the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP):
Conservation Reserve Program
The manager’s package included several amendments to the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), further modifying the changes that were included in the Senate Committee leadership’s bill. Senator Ernst secured two amendments that focused on further targeting CRP enrollments to ensure that the program prioritizes the most sensitive and highly erodible acres for enrollment. One of the amendments limits eligibility for CRP general sign-ups to land that cannot be farmed in a manner that meets soil erosion standards, thereby targeting the program to only the most critical land to remove from production.
Additionally, we are pleased that Senator Amy Klobuchar’s (D-MN) amendment to modify the CRP Transition Incentive Program was included. This amendment further improves the transfer of farmland between retiring landowners and beginning, socially disadvantaged, and veteran farmers and ranchers. It also provides beginning farmers starting new operations on former CRP land a two-year head start on becoming eligible for organic certification.
Within CRP, we are pleased to see underlying bill created a new easements program with several important continuous enrollment options as eligible to be put into long-term easements after the first 10-year contract, and we hope that as discussion moves forward this program will also be expanded to include eligibility for the CRP grasslands initiative. We thank Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) for filing an amendment to include the grasslands initiative within the new easement option. It was not included in the managers’ package, but we hope to see this included as the bill moves to the floor.
Senator John Thune (R-SD) also brought up a CRP amendment, which he ultimately withdrew following opposition from the Chair and Ranking Member. This amendment proposed to increase the CRP acreage cap to 26.25 million acres, and also made several other policy changes. While NSAC was supportive of several of the policy changes included in the Thune amendment, we were unable to support the amendment overall. We are glad that Senator Thune agreed to withdraw his amendment and continue to work to reform CRP as the bill moves to the Senate floor. We hope to see further improvements in a final bill that advance support for continuous enrollments and include greater flexibility for haying and grazing.
Conservation compliance requirements tie commodity and crop insurance subsidies to reductions in soil erosion and protection of wetlands. Without these requirements, we would see a dramatic increase in soil erosion and wetland and grassland conversions. Several amendments were in play, both in the manager’s amendment as well as stand-alones offered during markup, which would affect conservation compliance.
Senator John Hoeven (R-ND) filed several amendments related to wetland compliance. We are pleased that several detrimental Hoeven amendments, which would have compromised wetland compliance implementation, were not included in the mangers package. We are also pleased that the wetlands amendments that did move forward included important improvements and protections compared to those included in the House bill.
We are disappointed, however, that other amendments to strengthen enforcement of soil and wetland conservation compliance were not included in the manager’s package, and we look forward to helping to advance those as the bill moves forward.
Senators Klobuchar and Thune offered an amendment to expand and improve the “sodsaver provision” that limits crop insurance subsidies on native grasslands converted to crop production. Currently, sodsaver applies in only six states in the Prairie Pothole Region. The Klobuchar-Thune amendment would help to expand access to the program by including a national opt-in option for states. While this amendment will not expand sodsaver to apply nationally automatically or be mandatory, as was the case in their original proposal from the American Prairies Conservation Act, it does include an option for states to opt-in. We are pleased there was a commitment from the Chairman during Committee markup to work to expand and improve sodsaver as the process moves forward toward floor debate.
We are disappointed that a very important amendment from Senator Casey to give USDA authority and funding to measure, evaluate, and report on conservation outcomes of farm bill conservation programs was not included in the manager’s package. We look forward to continuing to advance this important provision as the Senate farm bill moves forward.
As we previously reported, the Senate Farm Bill includes a new consolidated local food program – LAMP – with permanent baseline funding that is very similar to the one proposed in the NSAC endorsed Local FARMS Act (S. 1947). One of the differences between LAMP and what was proposed in the Local FARMS Act is that LAMP includes food safety cost-share assistance – in addition to assistance for value-added agriculture development – to producers as an eligible use of funds within the “development grants for producers” section. Food safety cost-share assistance for producers was proposed as a separate new program within the Local FARMS Act, and NSAC strongly supported the inclusion of food safety assistance for producers in LAMP.
However, in the process of adding food safety assistance into LAMP, the Committee inadvertently did not include a specific allocation for how much of the funding for “development grants for producers” went to food safety vs. value-added agriculture development. To fix this problem, Senator Grassley, together with Senator Brown, proposed an amendment that was included in the manager’s amendment to ensure that at least 75 percent ($15.75 million/year) of the “development grants for producers” funding will support value-added agriculture projects, and up to 25% ($5.25 million/year) will support farmer food safety assistance.
On the credit front, the big debate during markup focused on whether or not to raise individual loan limits on Farm Service Agency (FSA) direct and guaranteed operating and ownership loans. Senator Hoeven introduced an amendment that would have doubled all loan limits, which if adopted, would have ultimately decreased access to credit for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers who struggle to secure financing from commercial lenders.
Today, the average FSA guaranteed loan size is $380,000. The Hoeven amendment would have doubled loan limits, putting taxpayers on the hook to finance up to $2.5 million per farmer, funds which would largely support the expansion of contract production in poultry and pork CAFOs and further consolidation in agriculture. At the same time, Hoeven proposed to also double direct operating loans from the government to $600,000, without a shred of evidence that an increase is needed.
Fortunately, Senator Klobuchar introduced and the Committee adopted a “2nd degree amendment” (essentially an amendment to an amendment), which proposed a more modest increase (up to $1.75 million for guaranteed loans, $600,000 for direct farm ownership, and $400,000 for direct operating loans). Senator Klobuchar’s amendment also introduced new reporting requirements on FSA loan target participation rates for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers.
While NSAC continues to oppose major increases to loan caps with the exception of direct farm ownership loans, we appreciate that Senator Klobuchar’s amendment reduces the negative impact of the Hoeven amendment with the aforementioned important changes. NSAC is committed to continuing to work with members in both the House and Senate to ensure that any increases to FSA loan caps are measured against current program usage and demand, historical funding levels, and performance targets with respect to lending to underserved borrowers.
While there were no energy amendments included as part of the manager’s package, there were two amendments in the Energy Title that were offered and ultimately included in the draft bill during today’s markup.
Senator Bennet offered an amendment to increase technical assistance and outreach for producers trying to use biogas in their operations.
Senator Klobuchar offered an amendment to restore mandatory funding for the following Energy Title programs (none of which received mandatory funding in the base bill): Biomass Research and Development Initiative; Bio-based Markets Program; Biorefinery Assistance Program; Bioenergy Program for Advanced Biofuels; and Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP). The amendment also included a provision to return nearly $80 million in Margin Protection Program premium payments made by dairy farmers during this current farm bill cycle. The total cost of the over $450 million amendment was offset by the elimination of the Upland Cotton Economic Adjustment Assistance Program, a priority for House Agriculture Committee Chair Mike Conaway (R-TX).
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has stated that he hopes to bring the bill before the full Senate by June 29, which is the last day that Congress is in session before the July 4 recess. It is not yet clear how many amendments will be allowed if and when the bill goes to the floor. As the Senate prepares to take their bill to the floor, the House has yet to set a date for revisiting its version of the farm bill, which failed on the House floor last month. It is very possible that the House will try again sometime this month to pass its bill, though whether leadership will have votes to pass the bill on their second attempt remains a big question.
If both the House and Senate pass their bills, they can then establish a conference committee and begin negotiations. Under a scenario where the House bill fails again and the Senate bill passes, the House could choose to abandon their bill and instead take up the Senate bill, though that seems highly unlikely before the November elections. Whatever the ultimate path is, we hope that the Senate bill will serve as the standard-bearer for crafting the final 2018 Farm Bill. As the process progresses, NSAC will continue to provide detailed analysis and updates.
Categories: Beginning and Minority Farmers, Carousel, Commodity, Crop Insurance & Credit Programs, Conservation, Energy & Environment, Farm Bill, Grants and Programs, Local & Regional Food Systems, Nutrition & Food Access, Organic, Research, Education & Extension, Rural Development