Note to Readers — This is the first in what will be a series of posts on the 2012 Farm Bill reported out of the Senate Agriculture Committee on April 26.
The Senate Agriculture Committee voted the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act — the proposed name for the 2012 Farm Bill — out of Committee on Thursday, April 26. The markup and negotiations that immediately preceded the markup resulted in some significant improvements in the bill for beginning farmers, though the bill still needs to do more in this area in our view.
Last year, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) along with Agriculture Committee members Sens. Leahy (D-VT), Klobuchar (D-MN), Casey (D-PA), Brown (D-OH) and nine off-Committee sponsors introduced the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act (S. 1850) as a template for provisions that should be included in the new Farm Bill. An identical bill (H.R. 3236) was introduced at the same time in the House by Reps. Walz (D-MN-1) and Fortenberry (R-NE-1).
Here’s a title by title breakdown of what beginning farmer related provisions were (and were not) included in the Farm Bill that emerged out of the Senate Committee markup. This post focuses on changes adopted since a week ago when the the draft farm bill bill was first presented by Chairwoman Stabenow (D-MI) and Ranking Member Roberts (R-KS). A previous blog post on beginning farmers summarizes the provisions as presented in the original draft bill.
The popular Transitions Incentive Program (see previous blog post for more details) was championed by Sen. Johanns (R-NE) and included in the manager’s amendment that was presented during committee markup with increased funding of $50 million over the life of the farm bill, rather than just the $25 million included in the bill presented for Committee consideration. NSAC applauds the Senator for his leadership on this issue which addresses the common challenge of accessing land that many beginning farmers and ranchers face when looking to farm. It is not clear if $50 million will prove to be sufficient for the program over the next five years and it may well be a bit short, but the amendment definitely made it closer to the mark.
Another win for beginning farmers in the conservation title was Sen. Leahy’s addition of “promoting agricultural viability for future generations” to the purpose of the newly created Agricultural Land Easements Program, which consolidates the existing Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program (FRPP) with other conservation easement programs. The farm viability provision is an important improvement to what is today the FRPP. The amendment did not cover the full breadth of the proposal in the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act, but is an important step in the right direction.
The existing set-asides, higher cost-share rates, and the advance payment option within the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) were left intact, however the proposed increases in these provisions that were included in the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act, were not included.
Two other amendments that were included in the final bill were one that adds veteran farmers to the list of eligible applicants (along with beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers) who can receive an increased cost-share rate under EQIP and one that creates an exemption to allow beginning farmers and ranchers to graze on land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program.
There were no huge changes in the credit title from what was included in the bill prior to markup and the bill that was voted out of committee this week. Of note, the Down Payment Loan Program maintained the higher value of land that can be financed that was included in the draft bill, as proposed and championed by Sen. Harkin. This change will increase the utility of the down payment program in areas with high land costs.
The Beginning Farmer Individual Development Accounts program, for which NSAC has been advocating for funding since its creation in the last farm bill, was maintained but unfortunately still not funded.
One minor change included in the final committee bill changed loan eligibility criteria to require a farmer to have “participated in a farm operation” in order to receive a direct farm ownership loan, rather than having “operated” a farm to qualify.
Sadly, language included in the original draft bill presented to the Committee that restricted conservation loans to family-sized farms was stripped out of the final bill that is now headed to the Senate floor.
Finally, we were disappointed to see that despite efforts of key champions on the Committee, an authorization for a microloan program was not included in the final package. On the bright side, USDA is currently in the process of creating a microloan program, although it is not specifically targeted at beginning farmers nor does it include any special features for young or beginning farmers, as is proposed in the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act. NSAC will continue to work for an authorization in the farm bill, and also plans to comment on USDA’s forthcoming proposed rule for the new program.
For an overview of other credit programs that were included in the bill prior to mark-up, see our previous blog post.
On the rural development front, Sen. Casey won an amendment that clarifies the priority for beginning farmers within the Value-Added Producer Grant (VAPG) program into the final package. The new provision requires that at least a quarter of the beneficiaries of a VAPG grant be beginning or socially disadvantaged producers in order to qualify for this priority. This is a program implementation issue that NSAC has been working on for the past few years, and which has not been sufficiently addressed in the rulemaking process. Hopefully, if this provision becomes law, more projects will be given priority and funded that benefit and create value-added entrepreneurial opportunities for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers.
Unfortunately, the funding issue for VAPG has yet to be resolved as the farm bill makes its way to the Senate floor. Sen. Brown commented during markup that without a strong investment in rural development programs, this bill cannot truly be considered a “jobs bill.” While there is currently no funding for any rural development programs (other than energy title programs) in the bill as reported by Committee, Sen. Brown did offer and subsequently withdraw an amendment that would have provided some funding for VAPG as well as the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program (RMAP). There may well be an opportunity for the Brown amendment to be offered and accepted on the Senate floor.
Sen. Casey offered, spoke to the importance of, and then withdrew in light of opposition his amendment to give USDA clear guidance and flexibility to use rural development loan and grant programs to spur new agricultural enterprises that benefit beginning farmers. This provision is included in the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act, but did not make it into the final package voted on by the Committee.
Research, Education, Extension
Perhaps the most disappointing outcome for beginning farmers of the current bill as it stands is the insufficient funding providing to fund new farmer training and education programs under the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP). In the bill as reported by the Committee, this program receives $50 million over the course of the farm bill (compared with $75 million included in the last farm bill), which cuts annual program funding almost in half – from $19 million to $10 million per year. This will severely impact the number of grants that will be able to made under this program, and will decrease the number of new farmer training programs established, and ultimately the number of new farmers successfully entering farming each year.
Despite efforts to introduce an amendment that would create the offsets needed to provide adequate funding for this program, we were unable to secure additional funding for this program during markup. NSAC will continue to press for $25 million a year for this program as the farm bill process moves forward.
Miscellaneous Title – Minority Farmers and Veterans
There were a few bright spots specifically for veteran beginning farmers hidden in the Miscellaneous Title. Sen. Nelson (D-NE) championed a new provision that creates a veterans agricultural liaison position within USDA, who would be responsible for assisting returning military veterans in accessing federal programs, specifically new farming training and agricultural rehabilitation programs. Additionally, this position would advocate on behalf of veterans within the Department. This was part of the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act.
Sens. Baucus (D-MT) and Johanns pushed to include an emphasis on veterans within the Office of Advocacy and Outreach, and the 2501 Outreach and Technical Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmer and Ranchers program.
NSAC was also pleased to see that $5 million a year in mandatory funding was provided in the final bill for the 2501 Outreach program, compared with zero dollars contained in the draft bill released before committee mark up. Sen. Harkin, with support from Sens. Baucus and Johanns and others, was instrumental in pushing for this funding and we commend all who helped make it happen.
NSAC collaborated with several other groups that work on minority farmer issues on a letter addressed to the Senate Agriculture Committee urging $25 million a year in funding for both the 2501 program and the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. As the farm bill progress proceeds in the Senate, NSAC will continue to work with beginning, minority, and veteran farmer champions in the Senate to renew critical funding for these two programs.
NSAC commends Chair Stabenow and Ranking Member Roberts for including some of the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act provisions in their mark and for working with the various members of the Committee who offered further amendments this week to assist beginning, socially disadvantaged, and veteran farmers and ranchers.
For more information on which provisions were included in the draft farm bill, see our previous blog post on beginning farmers.