On Monday evening, June 10, the Senate passed its version of the 2013 Farm Bill by a vote of 66-27. The bill passed with strong bipartisan support, and only two Democrats (both of the Senators from Rhode Island) voted with 25 Republicans in opposition to the bill. Due in part to bad weather in the DC area, a number of lawmakers had their travel delayed and missed the vote.
The vote on final passage came after Senators voted to limit debate on the bill at the end of last week. Apart from final passage, the only other vote taken on the farm bill on Monday was on an amendment sponsored by Senator Leahy (D-VT) to improve rural broadband. The limited nature of the debate meant that the Senate did not consider a number of sustainable agriculture amendments.
House floor action on the farm bill approved by the House Agriculture Committee could begin as early as next week. We presented our views on that bill in an earlier press release, including information about successful Committee amendments. Floor amendments are in the process of being written, and we will alert readers to key opportunities for subsidy reform, beginning farmers, local food, organic farming, and rural economic development in the very near future.
Senate Bill – Summary on Some Key Issues
In most respects, the bill passed by the Senate this week mirrors the farm bill passed by the full Senate last year.
On subsidy reform, the bill eliminates direct payments and replaces them with two new commodity subsidy programs: Agricultural Risk Coverage and Adverse Market Payments, the latter being the major new addition to the Senate bill relative to the version that passed last year. Overall, the bill plows two-thirds of the savings from eliminating direct payments back into new subsidy programs, including these two plus several more in the crop insurance title.
The Senate bill includes historic payment limitation reform for the commodity programs, limiting payments to $50,000 per year (double for married couples) and plugging all the loopholes that currently allow mega farms to collect unlimited payments in spite of the nominal limit in statute. It fails, however, to include any similar reform to crop insurance subsidies, which, after passage of the new farm bill, will be roughly twice as large as commodity subsidies in terms of taxpayer dollars. On the positive reform side, the crop insurance title includes a directive to create a new Whole Farm Diversified Risk Management Insurance policy on a nationwide basis for all types of diversified farming operations, as well as support for publishing organic price elections.
With respect to means testing, the bill lowers the overall adjusted gross income (AGI) threshold for receiving commodity subsidies to $750,000 (double for most married couples), though the new limit would be higher than current law for investors with primarily non-farm income. By way of a successful floor amendment, the bill lowers premium subsidies by 15 percent for those with AGIs above $750,000 (double for most married couples).
On conservation programs, the bill cuts nearly $6 billion over ten years, while consolidating a variety of existing programs into bigger umbrella programs. It takes a disproportionate amount of the overall spending cut from the Conservation Stewardship Program and fails to improve, and potentially sets back, CSP policy. It also fails to reform the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. On the plus side, it creates permanent funding for what was the Wetlands Reserve Program (now included as the wetlands component of a bigger, consolidated agricultural easement program), albeit at a substantially lower level than WRP has been funded at historically. A second program consolidation creates a new Regional Conservation Partnership Program to do targeted conservation initiatives with outside partners working with USDA, though it fails to create a direct path for technical assistance funding for the partnership. The acreage cap for the Conservation Reserve Program would be reduced to 25 million acres, with a new grassland option.
With respect to conservation and crop insurance, the bill includes a national sodsaver provision to reduce insurance subsidies for breaking out new cropland from native prairie and other important grasslands, and also includes a re-linking of wetland and highly erodible land conservation requirements to receipt of crop insurance subsidies. The latter does not include any provision for better funding or enforcement through enhanced spot checking.
On beginning farmer issues, the bill does very well for the Conservation Reserve – Transition Incentives Program and the Down Payment Loan Program, and medium well on the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers, and beginning farmer issues related to farmland easements. It fails, however, to include the new Microloan Program (included in the House bill), any funding for the Beginning Farmer Individual Development Account program, and any modernization of the badly out-of-date limited resource loan rate and participation loan rates.
On organic farming issues, the bill does very well for the National Organic Certification Cost-Share Program, Organic Production and Market Data Initiatives, National Organic Program, and organic crop insurance, and medium well for the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative. It fails to make any of the needed improvements to the Organic Initiative within the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
On local and regional food system and rural development issues, the bill does very well for the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program, SNAP Electronic Benefit Transfer provision for direct farmer-to-consumer markets, and for SNAP Incentives (double up food bucks). The bill rates medium-well for the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program and for Community Food Grants. It fails to include Farm to School provisions (included in the House bill) for USDA Foods and for the DoD Fresh program, fails to include local and regional food infrastructure improvements to an array of rural development programs, fails to include the Local and Regional Food Enterprise Facilitation program, and fails to increase funding for the Seniors Farmers Market Nutrition Program.
Summary of Farm Bill Funding Issues
For a summary of funding levels and spending cuts in the Senate bill as well as the pending House bill, see our post on Farm Bills by the Numbers.