This is the fifth post in a multi-part blog series analyzing the draft farm bill released on June 8, 2018 by the Senate Agriculture Committee. The final post will focus on crop insurance and commodity subsidies. The bill is expected to be considered and “marked-up” (aka amended) by the full Agriculture Committee on June 13 and on the Senate floor later this month. We expect further improvements to the beginning farmer and socially disadvantaged farmer provisions in the bill during mark-up and will report on those through updated and future posts.
The Senate Agriculture Committee’s draft farm bill includes several laudable policy changes and funding increases that will help beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers to start and maintain viable farm and food businesses. At a time when farmers of color and beginners trying to break into the business face significant and disproportionate barriers to success, the Senate Committee’s draft bill takes steps toward leveling the playing field and increasing access to critical tools and resources for underserved producers.
We were heartened to see that many of the policy ideas championed in the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s (NSAC) 2018 Farm Bill Platform – and which were also included in the Next Generation in Agriculture Act, the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act, and the Assist Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Act – were included in the Senate’s draft bill.
Below, we include a summary of the key takeaways on how the draft Senate bill approaches beginning and socially disadvantaged farmer and rancher programs.
- Permanently reauthorizes and funds two of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) flagship training and technical assistance programs for underserved producers – the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) and the Outreach and Assistance to Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program (Section 2501). The bill combines the two programs into a new Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach Program while still protecting the functions and purposes of each component program.
- Provides permanent funding of $50 million per year, split evenly between the two program components, which will support long-term investments to ensure both the next generation and farmers of color have access to the resources they need to build successful and viable farms.
- Strengthens BFRDP (as part of the new consolidated program) by adding new priorities on food safety and succession planning, eliminating the matching funds requirement, and including farmer involvement in project design and implementation as an evaluation criterion for grant proposals.
- Increases transparency, accountability and responsiveness to stakeholders within the 2501 Program (as part of the new consolidated program) by requiring an external peer review process and strengthening reporting requirements of outcomes.
- By comparison, the version of the farm bill that recently failed on the floor of the House of Representatives includes $20 million for BFRDP and $10 million for 2501 as separate programs, and does not establish a permanent funding baseline. The House bill does, however, include a number of similar policy changes.
- Ensures that all beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers enrolling in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) have the option to receive 50 percent of their cost-share payment up front. The failed House bill, by comparison, does not include this change.
- Creates a National Beginning Farmer Coordinator position, as well as designated coordinators in each state, to better coordinate USDA outreach efforts to new farmers. The House bill similarly added beginning farmer coordinators, though did do by amendment.
- Adds “socially disadvantaged farmers” to Farm Credit System lending reporting requirements on young, beginning, and small farmers.
- Expands State Mediation Grants to support mediation services related to farm transition.
- Increases funding for the Conservation Reserve Program Transition Incentives Program, which is welcome. However, the bill makes no policy improvements nor assigns dedicated outreach funding to address some of the program’s longstanding challenges. The House bill, by comparison, merely extends the funding level provided by the 2014 Farm Bill.
- Boosts funding for the Agriculture Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) and includes policy tweaks to better target funding to new farmers. These policy reforms include adding flexibility for land trusts to better access ACEP funding needed to protect farmland and then transfer it to a farmer. The Senate bill also gives USDA the authority to prioritize easements that maintain agriculture viability; however, it doesn’t make this priority a requirement nor does it mandate an option to purchase at the agricultural value. The failed House bill also increases funding for ACEP, though it does not provide similar policy changes, and it weakens existing conservation requirements.
- Does not increase Farm Service Agency guaranteed loan limits (which is a positive outcome, as doing so would disproportionately help larger, more established farm businesses and disadvantage beginning farmers), but also does not increase the $300,000 cap on Direct Farm Ownership Loans (which does need to be increased to allow more beginning and socially disadvantaged to purchase farmland). The recently failed House bill does increase guaranteed loan limits, which NSAC opposes.
- Improves risk management options for beginning farmers and requires USDA to conduct an analysis on the barriers for underserved farmers in accessing crop insurance. The bill does not, however, expand current beginning farmer crop insurance discounts to all new farmers who have been farming for less than 10 years. By contrast, the House bill does make the change to 10 years, though only for Whole Farm Revenue Insurance.
- Like the House bill, the Senate Committee’s version fails to increase the 5 percent set-asides in conservation funding for beginning or socially disadvantaged farmers. This is compounded by significant cuts made to both the Conservation Stewardship Program and EQIP.
- Also like the failed House bill, does not renew mandatory funding for the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program (RMAP), which is an important resource that provides new farmers the loan capital and business training they need to launch new farm-related businesses.
- Fails to include a Farmland Tenure, Transition and Entry Data Initiative, which was included in the House bill, that would increase data collection and reporting on new farmer trends.
- Does not establish mandatory funding for the Individual Development Accounts program, which was created a decade ago but has to date never received funding.