What’s going on with the Farm Bill? Didn’t it pass recently? Is there anything good for family farmers in it?

January 2008

Dear Laura,
What’s going on with the Farm Bill? Didn’t it pass recently? Is there anything good for family farmers in it?
Thomas McCurry
Little Rock, AR

Hi Thomas,

What a good question! Farm Bill happenings can be pretty tricky to follow. To get the most up to date scoop, I called Kathy Ozer of the National Family Farm Coalition, a Farm Aid funded group. As a long-time farmer advocate, Kathy can talk Farm Bill happenings like no other. I’ve got a ton of notes from our conversation but I will try and keep things simple.

You are right, two versions of the Farm Bill have been passed: the House bill passed in the summer and the Senate passed their version in December. Now, the bills need to be merged to create one federal Farm Bill. To do this, the agriculture committees “conference the bills,” which means that they examine the differences between the two bills, negotiate, debate, rewrite and bring one bill back to the House and Senate for final approval. Conference committee participants are called “conferees” and are being selected right now. The actual committee process is likely to start sometime in February. In the meantime, staffers of likely conferees are already meeting to find common ground on some of the more easily resolved differences.

To add to the suspense, this year there is a fairly significant veto threat from the White House. This means that to pass a Farm Bill this time around, the committee will have to make significant changes to the current bill to satisfy the White House. Some of the debate will happen publicly, which give opportunities to farm and food activists to weigh in on their issues – we like that! As for timeframe, it depends entirely on how many deals are being struck in Washington right now and how many will need to be worked out through the debate process.

Now, for your second question, there are some good elements in each of these bills and others that are less desirable. Before I launch into some of the big points, I have to add a disclaimer that these are HUGE bills with many parts, so big in fact that they are called “omnibus”legislation, and I don’t in anyway mean to represent the entirety of either one.

Competition: As farm policy stands right now, big industry has a significant advantage over independent family farmers and new provisions in the Senate bill would reinstate marketplace fairness through rules that protect family farmers who raise livestock and poultry. Similar language was passed in the 2002 Farm Bill but was struck out in conference committee – advocates will be fighting hard to make sure that doesn’t happen again this year.

Diversity: The Senate bill proposes $15 million in mandatory funding for Section 2501,an outreach and education program designed to ensure that minority farmers know about, and have the resources to apply for, all farm programs. This level of funding is more than double its historic level and shows a real commitment to diversifying which farmers see the benefits of federal programs.

Community Food Projects: Both the House and the Senate propose significant increases in funding for the Community Food Projects Program. However, only the Senate bill recommends mandatory funding, which means that the support is guaranteed for the life of the Farm Bill. Over the ten years that this program has been in existence, it has funded 240 local initiatives that increase markets for family farmers and access to the food that they grow for low-income residents. You can read more about these efforts here.

New in this bill are provisions that expand business development loans to support infrastructure development for farmers markets, CSA’s and other market links between family farmers and low-income consumers. Another positive in this particular category, is that both the House and the Senate wrote clear language that enables schools to employ geographic preference when they buy school food, meaning they can now opt to buy from the farmer down the street as opposed to only taking into account the price of the bid.

Disaster: The Senate Bill proposes a $5 billion permanent disaster program; rumor has it that the House is also supportive of this initiative. Meaning that the next time there is a weather-related disaster that impacts family farmers, there will already be money in place to help them. The bill does not, however, improve the programs and systems that deliver disaster assistance. Next time around, perhaps!

Now, for what’s missing. For many farm groups that we work with, like the National Family Farm Coalition, the key piece that is missing from both of these bills is a reinstatement of a federal role in establishing fair prices for farmers. In the context of record high corn prices, there was not a lot of momentum this time around to attack some of the more systemic issues in the Commodity Title. In the House bill, the Conservation Security Program (CSP), a program designed to preserve or improve soil, water and air quality, is stripped down significantly. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which was designed to help farmers improve environmental practices on their farms, is instead opened up to livestock industry-operated factory farms in the House bill. The Senate Bill on the other hand, made some major improvements to CSP (which they have renamed the Conservation Stewardship Program), but at the same time merged elements of an unimproved EQIP into the same package. Farm Aid funded group Sustainable Agriculture Coalition is a good place to learn more about this particular issue.

So, we have some good points that folks from groups like the National Family Farm Coalition and Community Food Security Coalition are working to get through to the final bill and others that we will have to keep working on for the next go around. Keep an eye out for news around the conference process and a final Farm Bill. If you want a refresher on Farm Bill basics, take a look at this Q&A that we wrote a couple of months back.

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