Farm Bill a ‘Mixed Bag’ for Sustainable Ag
February 3, 2014 | Noelle Swan
After a year of fierce debate, House and Senate agricultural leaders released a finalized Farm Bill, known as The Agricultural Act of 2014 last week. The bill has been making its way through congress and President Obama is expected to sign it into law on Wednesday.
“Today’s bipartisan agreement puts us on the verge of enacting a five-year Farm Bill that saves taxpayers billions, eliminates unnecessary subsidies, creates a more effective farm safety-net and helps farmers and businesses create jobs,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D.) of Michigan, Chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee said in a release on Jan. 27.
While Democrats and Republicans alike are patting themselves on the back for working together after one of the most embattled years in congressional history, American farmers, especially small-scale, sustainably-minded farmers, are left holding a mixed bag, according to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, a grassroots, sustainable agriculture advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.
On the one hand, additional funding for beginning farmers, organic agriculture, rural development, and specialty crops will undoubtedly help support local and sustainable food systems. On the other hand, any savings gained from the elimination of direct payment subsidies are lost in the expansion of insurance subsidies, which will effectively continue to subsidize “millionaire farmers,” NSAC charges in a detailed analysis of latest iteration of the bill.
“Without a doubt, the most disappointing aspect of the final farm bill is its egregious failure to retain the historic reforms to commodity program subsidies that were incorporated into both bills by significant bipartisan majorities in both chambers of Congress,” NSAC states. “We are also disappointed that the final bill did not retain the amendment introduced by Senators Durbin (D-IL) and Coburn (R-OK) that would have modestly reduced crop insurance subsidies for millionaire farmers.”
Congressional agricultural leaders have touted subsidy reform as one of the bill’s major accomplishments. On the surface, the end of direct payments, which have long benefited large-scale farms growing commodity crops, should be a win for small farmers across the country. However, critics of the bill suggest that those industrialized row-croppers will likely receive just as much, if not more, in insurance subsidies as they collected in direct payments.
“It’s moonshine by another name,” Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, told the Wall Street Journal. “We’re replacing a discredited subsidy with a soon-to-be discredited subsidy.”
Despite these concerns, there is still much for sustainable and beginning farmers to celebrate in the Farm Bill. The bill provides for substantial investments in local and regional food systems, tripling funding for the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program, nearly doubling funding for Community Food Projects Competitive Grants and establishing a new Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive grant program. Whole Farm Diversified Risk Management Insurance will open the federal crop insurance system for diversified farmers.
The bill holds several gains for organic farmers, including a more than doubling of funding for the national Organic Certification Cost-Share Program, continued investment in several organic research programs, and a new improvements in crop insurance for organic farmers. The bill also includes provisions to support beginning farmers and ranchers. The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program will distribute $100 million for new farmer training programs. A new microloan might make it easier for small famers to borrow funds for start-up and improvement. However, the bill also slashes benefits for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers in half.
While the NSAC applauds the $600-million in research dollars for specialty crops, organic agriculture, and beginning farmers, the coalition sharply criticizes hurdles embedded in the bill that make it difficult for non-profit research organizations to compete for such funding.
Also worth noting, are items that did not make it into the bill. The livestock industry had lobbied hard to repeal the Obama administration’s Country of Origin Labeling requirement implemented last year. While farm-to-fork communities support the labels, large-scale meat producers say that the requirement will lead to higher costs that will eventually trickle down to the consumer. The rule remains intact, though the bill does call for an economic review of the impact of the labeling requirement on consumers within 180 days from the signing of the bill into law.
Another notable omission from the bill is the animal welfare provision proposed by Rep. Steve King, (R. Iowa) that would have prevented states from imposing stricter animal confinement rules than those instituted at the federal level. Passage of the law would have forced California to repeal legislation banning battery cages, gestation stalls, and veal crates.
As with any compromise, there are wins and losses for both sides of the political aisle and the field. As Rep. Jim Costa, (R.) of California said in a statement: “I think, given all the difficulties we’ve faced, and while there are things I wish were different, that this bill seems like something I can support.”