With the new farm bill languishing in the last stages of negotiations, many are bemoaning its lack of sweeping reform, suggesting that we have gained very little from months and years of work.
But if the new bill is not to be the visionary document that many hoped and advocated for, what, if anything, do we stand to lose if the new bill is vetoed or negotiations reach an impasse and the 2002 farm bill is extended for two years?
There are several small but important gains that we are poised to win if the new farm bill gets passed, making it an improvement over the underlying bill from 2002. These improvements include provisions that support local and regional food systems, organic production and research, beginning farmers, nutrition, and the environment, and they are the reason why Congress should pass a new farm bill.
These bright spots in an otherwise murky and massive bill are not likely to induce a major change to our broken-down food system, but they are seeds we must plant for greater reform and broader transformation in the years to come.
Anyone stalwart (or nutty) enough to still be following the protracted farm bill negotiations knows that Congress has a week to tie things up before the current farm bill extension expires on April 18. If the deadline is not reached, Congress will either pass a third short-term extension so they can continue their wrangling, or they will opt to set the bill aside for at least a year (maybe two) and redirect their attention to other legislation and upcoming elections.
Even if the farm bill conference committee members do reach an agreement, a new farm bill is not a done deal. After both chambers vote on it, the bill has to receive final approval from the president. The Bush administration remains poised to veto the bill if it includes tax increases.
So, what happens if, after the years of deliberation, political theater, and public debate, we don’t get a new farm bill in 2008? Do the new bill’s seemingly small changes to the status quo mean, as some have suggested, that it might be better for the underlying 2002 bill to be extended for a year? Should we support a presidential veto so that Congress is forced to start from scratch?
Many farmers and consumers stand to benefit from new farm bill policies that advance local food systems, organics, the environment, nutrition assistance, and beginning and socially disadvantaged producers. These programs are worth hundreds of millions and, in some cases, billions of dollars each year. They represent small, distinct wins that would be squandered if the 2002 bill is extended or the new bill is vetoed.
Compared with any previous farm bill, there is more support in this new farm bill for local and regional food systems. Communities all over the country that are interested in starting up farmers markets stand a better chance, because the new bill is likely to include a sevenfold increase in funding to improve and expand farmers markets, roadside stands, community-supported agriculture (CSAs), and other direct producer-to-consumer marketing opportunities. The bill includes a new loan guarantee program for food enterprises that help rebuild a local and regional food infrastructure, and the Value-Added Producer Grants program is expanded to include mid-tier value chains and local and regional food businesses.
If a new farm bill passes, more kids could be eating good food grown by neighboring farms because of geographic preference language that would encourage schools to purchase locally-produced foods (similar language was used in the recent farm-to-school win in Washington state). The new bill would also double the funding levels for Community Food Project Grants, helping more low-income communities feed themselves through urban and peri-urban garden projects. If the current farm bill is extended rather than reauthorized, the Community Food Project Grants program will disappear completely due to its lack of baseline funding in current law.
Compared with any farm bill of the past, we also stand to gain much more federal support for organic production and research. With huge consumer demand for organic food running up against the significant challenges preventing many producers from converting to organic production practices, new farm bill programs would help farmers with their organic certification costs, as well as the costs associated with three-year conversion from conventional to organic. The new farm bill would also increase funding for organic research five times the current level. It also takes significant steps toward improving crop insurance policies for organic producers. This is a solid and important start to helping farmers keep up with demand for food that is produced organically.
One of the most exciting and comprehensive changes in the new farm bill is the suite of policies aimed at supporting the next generation of farmers. The average farmer in the U.S. is nearing retirement age, and over 400 million acres of farmland are expected to transition to new ownership in the next couple of decades. A new grants program will target farm bill funds to training, mentoring, and land link programs, interest rates for down payment loans will be as low as 1 percent, while 5 percent of funding in each conservation program will be set aside for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers (equating to tens of millions of dollars each year). To ensure oversight and coordination between all programs that address the needs of these farmers, a new Office on Small Farms and Beginning and Socially Disadvantaged Farmers at USDA will report directly to the Secretary of Agriculture.
In the new farm bill we are also poised to win $4 billion in much-needed additional funding for conservation programs including a new $2 billion for the Conservation Stewardship Program (formerly Conservation Security Program), an innovative program that recognizes the multifunctionality of agriculture by supporting farming livelihoods through “green” payments to farmers and ranchers for environmental enhancements and good stewardship, and $2 billion for the Wetlands and Grasslands Reserve Programs.
There are many additional advances in the next farm bill, like an Office of Farm Workers and a $9.5 billion increase for nutrition assistance, including food stamps (especially vital at a time of rapidly escalating food costs) and fresh fruits and vegetables for schools. For more information on all of these, you can visit the Farm and Food Policy Project and Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
The new farm bill is still being negotiated, and we must not stop urging full funding for these programs as well as larger structural reform via a strong Livestock Competition Title and cap on commodity payments. We do have something to gain from keeping the heat on members of Congress to deliver a new bill this year. Besides having real on-the-ground impact, the new programs and increased funding in the new farm bill will assist our ongoing work of changing the public conscience around deeper food system change.