The strain in today’s farm economy is no accident; it’s the result of policies designed to enrich corporations at the expense of farmers and ranchers. If the American family farmer is to survive, farm policy needs a massive shift in direction – one that delivers fair prices to farmers that allow them to make a living. A good place to start is in the 2018 Farm Bill.
Read on to explore the most important issues addressed in 2018 Farm Bill and Farm Aid’s take on how the House and Senate versions measure up. Stay tuned to this page as the Farm Bill process unfolds for our updates on specific bills or proposals coming out of Congress.
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To grow our food, family farmers operate within a unique and unpredictable marketplace and frequently face challenges from extreme weather events like drought and hurricanes. The unique nature of agricultural markets is such that without sound policies, it is nearly impossible for farmers to consistently make a fair living from the land.
For several decades, farm policy has encouraged farmers to produce as much as possible, leading to an overabundance of crops that depresses prices, sometimes to well below the cost of production for farmers (like the current multiyear slump in commodity and milk prices). That is good for big corporations looking to buy raw goods and process them for sale at a much higher value, but it leaves farmers struggling to cover their costs and pay their bills.
Current policy schemes hand most of the benefits over to insurance companies and corporations, and fail to provide a decent living to America’s farmers and ranchers.
In response, Farm Bill programs like subsidies, credit programs and crop insurance policies –making up the “farm safety net” – are meant to cover a portion of the difference between what the market pays and what it costs farmers to grow food. But current policy schemes hand most of the benefits over to insurance companies and corporations, and fail to provide a decent living to America’s farmers and ranchers . These policies also accelerate the growth of the very largest farms, and leave small and mid-sized farmers high and dry. To the general public, this rightly seems absurd and often propels the myth that all farmers are receiving unnecessary government subsidies (in reality, the top 1% of farms-by-sales receive 20% of farm subsides!).
There are many ways to secure fair farm prices. Historically this has been achieved through a combination of supply management programs like creating a strategic grain reserve, or by setting floor prices (similar to the minimum wage). These programs ensure that farmers can at least recover their cost of production. Many have advocated for parity pricing for farmers, which helps them recover their cost of production plus a little more so they don’t just break even, but actually make a profit. The idea of parity pricing is comparable to the concept of a living wage.
If we’re going to keep family farmers on the land, we need policies that support the success of all farmers and the communities they call home – not corporate profits. The 2018 Farm Bill should restore commonsense supply management to farm policy and recommit to fair pricing policies that cover farmers’ cost of production, instead of using taxpayer money to compensate for extreme, costly, and avoidable market volatility that puts farmers at risk of going out of business. We all eat because of the hard work that farmers and ranchers put into the land; the least we can do is ensure they make a living doing it.
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Latest News from Congress
The House Farm Bill amounts to a huge payout to corporate players at the expense of farmers and ranchers across the country – and on the taxpayer’s dime. This bill is an insult to farmers who have endured a multiyear slump in prices, with net farm income slashed in half since 2013. The most offensive provisions unravel key reforms in the 2014 Farm Bill that reign in payments to the largest farms The bill also removes a 30-year old rule that prevented corporate farms from receiving unlimited subsidy payments. Specific provisions even allow millionaires to receive farm program payments – an allowance that has historically been prohibited. The House bill also fails to make even small changes to crop insurance to ensure diversified and beginning farmers can access crop insurance.
In stark contrast to the House bill, the Senate Farm Bill includes important provisions that make commodity programs more equitable for family farmers. It seals in the current $125,000 annual cap on commodity payments and includes a critical “actively engaged in farming” provision to stop a huge flow of taxpayer money to the nation’s largest corporate farms. It also implements “conservation compliance” mechanisms for crop insurance payments, incentivizing on-farm conservation practices of soil and water. The bill includes some helpful provisions on crop insurance that move in the direction of broadening access to important risk management tools for more farmers.
Local Food Systems & Healthy Food Access
Farm Aid celebrates the great power of food to connect people and grow strong communities, as well as the farmers and ranchers at the root of our food system. The 2008 Farm Bill ushered in a suite of programs that support the development of local and regional food systems, market diversification opportunities for farmers, healthy food access initiatives and other innovative programs that seize upon the great potential of food to bolster local economies, create jobs and deepen the connection between farmers and eaters.
As Farm Aid moves around the country each year for our annual festival, we hear firsthand from farmers, local leaders and community members who have transformed their communities with the support of these programs. In areas like the greater Pittsburgh region (western Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio), where we held Farm Aid 2017, these programs have been a critical lifeline to help communities reinvent themselves – whether through diversifying the region’s agricultural base, advancing new food systems and markets or by fortifying the fabric of local communities through meaningful jobs centered on food and farming.
In addition, ever since Farm Aid started in 1985, we have worked alongside farmers who understand how connected their own struggle is to the struggle of poor Americans and those in need of healthy, farm fresh food. Farm groups of all kinds stand united in their assertion that a strong Farm Bill must include a safety net not only for farmers, but for eaters as well. The 2018 Farm Bill should bolster local and rural economies and create jobs by strengthening programs that promote new markets and help diversify our food system. In addition, the Farm Bill should expand access to healthy food for all Americans.
Click here to learn about the marker bills impacting local food systems and food access that we’re following closely.
Latest News from Congress
The House Farm Bill undercuts the great progress made in local and regional food systems development over the last decade by cutting all funding for and effectively eliminating the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program, Value-added Producer Grants Program, National Organic Certification Cost Share Program, Rural Energy for America Program and Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program. The bill also fails to expand low-income veterans’ access to the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program. In addition, the bill hurts hungry Americans by cutting nutrition assistance programs, removing an anticipated 2 million individuals from programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) over the next 10 years. It increases work requirements or requires enrollment in workforce training programs for SNAP recipients. Critics point out that the majority of able-bodied adult beneficiaries of SNAP already meet the work requirement and worry state-run job training programs are inaccessible for people in rural areas and won’t be sufficiently funded.
The Senate Farm Bill avoids cuts to SNAP program funding, keeping the program accessible to the millions of poor, elderly and disabled Americans who need it, and does not include any of the work requirements established in the House Bill. Combined with the $60 million in annual funding for a variety of programs that support local and regional food systems and healthy food access, the Senate bill is leaps and bounds above the House version. Whereas the House bill eliminated mandatory funding for a variety of these programs, the Senate bill consolidates programs like the Value Added Producer Grants, Farmers Market & Local Food Promotion Program and others into a new Local Agriculture Market Program that includes mandatory funding. It also includes funding for programs like the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) that was stripped in the House bill. Finally, the Senate bill requires USDA to have an Undersecretary for Rural Development, overturning Secretary Sonny Perdue’s decision to eliminate that position and restoring the stature of rural development programs that are so critical to communities across the country.
Soil, Water & Climate
Family farmers have an intimate relationship with the land. They know firsthand how our soil and water, and the weather’s impact on each, affect their success as farmers and the quality of goods they produce. When weather patterns become erratic, water is scarce, or soil health is compromised, farms take a hit.
The Farm Bill is the single largest federal source of funding for private lands conservation. For the better part of a century, farm bills have acknowledged the crucial role that government dollars can play by developing conservation programs that steward our natural resources. Funding for these programs has expanded over the last three decades, as more farmers seek to learn on-farm conservation skills, invest in the long-term health of our soil, water and climate, and build a more resilient agricultural system in the face of climate change.
But chronic lack of funding means that half of all qualified farmer applications to conservation programs are denied. The 2018 Farm Bill should include a robust Conservation Title that empowers farmers and ranchers to steward our natural resources and effectively mitigate and adapt to climate change by:
- Investing in the long-term health of our soil, air and water and maintaining full funding for all conservation programs;
- Expanding program access to serve farmers of all types; and
- Removing loopholes in the EQIP program that subsidize factory farms.
Click here to learn about the marker bills impacting soil, water and climate that we’re following closely.
Latest News from Congress
The House Farm Bill cut the Conservation Title by nearly $1 billion and cuts funding for working lands conservation programs by nearly $5 billion over 10 years. The bill also eliminates the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the nation’s largest conservation program, strips the USDA’s ability to monitor and evaluate its conservation programs, and weakens environmental protections provided by the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act. While there are some improvements to the bill, such as eliminating the set-aside for 60% of EQIP payments to go to factory farms, on the whole the bill is a major setback for the stewardship of our natural resources.
Whereas the House version of the Farm Bill made egregious cuts to the conservation title, the Senate Farm Bill has a much brighter outlook for soil, water and climate systems. Notable aspects include some program improvements to the CSP, a program the House farm bill completely eliminated, although the Senate bill does reduce funding for this critical program by $1 billion over 10 years, a disappointing development. The bill also includes set-aside payments for socially disadvantaged farmers to access critical conservation programs. The Senate bill avoids any language about the Clean Water Act or Endangered Species Act, steering clear of the House bill’s moves to undermine these laws.
Equal Opportunity for All Farmers
To ensure the long-term sustainability of our food system and proper stewardship of our natural resources, we need to make sure that everyone who wants to farm has the opportunity. For too long, the lion’s share of federal farm bill dollars has gone to a narrow segment of farmers and farm types. Farmers of color and female farmers have experienced discrimination when seeking access to credit, conservation and other farm programs. In far too many cases, this discrimination has led to farm families going out of business and losing their land.
For over 20 years, a program called Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers (also known as Section 2501) has served as the only farm bill program dedicated to addressing the specific needs of minority farmers. This program was expanded in the last farm bill to include military veterans, but since program funds were cut in half as well, it meant that fewer program dollars became divided among even more individuals.
The U.S. is at a critical juncture as our current farming population ages. Nearly 100 million acres of farmland is set to change hands over the next five years. That means we need a dogged effort to transfer skills, knowledge and land between current and future generations of family farmers. Although recent farm bills have made important steps in the right direction, such as the creation of the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, that status quo simply won’t cut it – we need a smart approach through committed investment and innovative programming.
The 2018 Farm Bill should build from past progress to ensure equal opportunity for farmers of all kinds and create a truly level playing field for anyone interested in becoming a farmer. As the current Administration works to dismantle civil rights programs and infrastructure throughout the USDA, it is as important as ever that Congress steps up with a multi-pronged approach to support farmers of all kinds.
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Latest News from Congress
The House Farm Bill fails to increase funding for the 2501 program. However, it again expands the program’s mission by adding a new programmatic priority, which means more individuals and communities have to compete for the same amount of money. For beginning farmers, the House Farm Bill reauthorizes the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, but fails to provide the program with permanent funding. Changes made to credit programs also mean that it will be harder for beginning farmers and smaller and mid-sized farmers to secure the financing they need to start or maintain their operations.
The Senate Farm Bill consolidates the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program with the 2501 program, and makes improvements to both while securing mandatory funding at $25 million annually for each program. In total, the Senate bill invests over a half a billion dollars over the next decade in programs that will permanently expand access to new farmer training, better connect retiring landowners with prospective new farmers, and scale up targeted outreach and technical assistance to farmers of color and veterans. The Senate bill also included a notable amendment around credit access for farmers who operate their land under “heirs property” law in several states. Historically, heirs property has passed down family land to farmers, but does not leave them with a clear title to the land, which has blocked their ability to receive FSA loans. This has disproportionately disadvantaged many African American farmers in the South, and the Senate bill’s amendment is a welcome improvement.