Last month Congress passed a new, $867 billion Farm Bill with bi-partisan support. The House vote was 369-47 (16 members not voting), and the Senate vote was 87-13. All but one of the Kansas and Missouri legislators voted in favor of the bill. Representative Vicki Hartzler (R) of Missouri was one of the 16 legislators who did not vote.
As you might guess from the bi-partisan support it received, the 2018 Farm Bill Legislation is a mixed bag rather than an ideological package. It was a moderate bill which more closely resembled the Senate’s priorities, and which tended to protect the status quo. The following comments draw upon analyses by National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Environmental Working Group, Farm Aid, Feeding America, Food Research Action Center, and the Rural Coalition, among others.
The Greater KC Food Policy Coalition rallied advocates to help shape Farm Bill policy that would put healthy food on the plates of struggling Americans and support local farms and economies. To focus our efforts, we identified three priority areas: conservation, research and extension and nutrition.
The coalition’s priorities for the 2018 Farm Bill fared well, on the whole.
We are pleased by these victories, and congratulate the legislators and advocates who worked to secure them, including Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (KS, R), and ranking member Debbie Stabenow (MI, D).
The 2018 Farm Bill included:
- No cuts or hostile changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) or other nutrition programs.
- More funding for research to support sustainable farming and ranching.
- Permanent, baseline funding for a number of programs that help new, beginning and/or socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers succeed.
- Important improvements to programs in the farm safety net to ensure farmers of color are not left behind. They include relief for producers incorrectly serviced when applying for direct loans, and access to conservation assistance for heirs who are farming jointly owned land.
- Permanent, baseline funding for some of the conservation programs the coalition prioritized, and no cuts to the overall funding in the conservation title.
Nonetheless, it is critical to acknowledge significant problems in the 2018 Farm Bill.
A variety of leading food system advocacy groups have noted that the legislation fails to adequately address many of the most urgent issues facing our food system, such as climate instability, low incomes for family farms, environmental destruction and soil quality, consolidation of farm and food processing as well as rural population shifts.
These failures often compound problems created by past bills, including critical underfunding of highly sought after conservation, research and extension programs that help growers learn about and adopt sustainable practices and adapt to changing conditions.
Here is a bit more information about the good and the bad for the coalition’s priorities in conservation, research and extension, and nutrition, followed by links to additional analyses and statements about the 2018 Farm Bill.
Funding was preserved or increased:
- Advocates successfully defeated attempts to reduce total funding for the conservation title, eliminate the Conservation Stewardship Program, and undermine enforcement of the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act.
- Funding for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program more than doubled, raising it above the threshold for permanent baseline funding. This is a major victory for a program which has been critically underfunded. Changes to EQIP and CSP will also make it easier for farmers and ranchers to transition to organic practices. The bill includes positive changes to CSP and other programs to encourage conservation practices such as cover cropping, crop rotation, buffer plantings and more.
However, the bill fails in critical ways:
- It expands loopholes that allow the wealthiest mega farms to exploit conservation and safety net programs, draining limited resources from programs that are badly needed by small farms and ranches. Meanwhile, the bill fails to increase dollars set aside for socially disadvantaged and beginning farmers in major conservation programs (CSP and EQIP). The overall effect will be greater access for the wealthiest farms at the expense of the new and/or disadvantaged.
- It cuts funding to performance based conservation through CSP. These additional cuts to CSP are compounding massive conservation funding cuts from the 2014 Farm Bill. The result is critical underfunding of conservation programs despite increasing climate instability and rapidly increasing need — and demand for — agricultural adaptation, illustrated by farmer demand for these programs which far exceeds available funding.
Although fending off cuts to conservation funding was a considerable victory in light of attacks by the House, stable conservation funding in the context of urgent need and high demand amounts to a devastating failure to act. It is not the Farm Bill we needed.
Research and Extension
Funding was increased and strong programs were created or reauthorized:
- Advocates secured about $630 million in new funding for agricultural research and other programs that will help farmers and ranchers succeed despite climate instability. Increased funding includes more than doubling annual funding for the Organic Agricultural Research and Extension Initiative, guaranteeing permanent, baseline funding.
- The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, the only farmer driven federal research program, was reauthorized for the first time since its creation. That’s good news because the program has been a source for innovations in sustainable farming practices for crop rotation, cover crops and more. Other programs that were reauthorized include the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, and Agriculture and Food Research Initiative. Both AFRI and OREI contain new soil health priorities. Unfortunately, it does not include important topics such as climate change adaptation among research priorities for AFRI.
- The bill also establishes permanent, baseline funding and important policy changes for several programs that assist new and/or socially disadvantaged farmers/ranchers. The Beginning Farmer Rancher Development Program was merged with the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program (“Section 2501”) to create the Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach program. The newly created Local Agriculture Market Program merges the Value Added Producer Grant program with the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program. These new programs also strengthen farm to table initiatives and support better market access for growers. Permanent, baseline funding means they will not go unfunded as a result of future legislative delays.
- Extension advocates are pleased that the title includes $40 million in funding to 1890 land-grant institutions (these are Historically Black Colleges and Universities that are also land-grant universities) for scholarships in agribusiness, energy and renewable fuels, and financial management. The bill also makes important policy changes to ensure greater equity in extension funding of these institutions.
- The bill establishes noteworthy urban agricultural initiatives. The Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production will promote urban, indoor and other emerging agricultural production practices, and will establish competitive grants and pilots. The Urban, Indoor, and Other Emerging Agricultural Production Research, Education, and Extension Initiative will offer competitive research and extension grants on: successful urban, indoor, and other emerging agriculture production; soil quality; local community needs and more. The initiative also directs the Secretary to conduct a census of urban, indoor and other emerging agricultural production.
Unfortunately, the bill does not substantially address a key priority of the coalition:
- Rural population declines are negatively impacting funding for extension programs. The current funding formula limits the ability of extension agents to work in rural areas, where farm and ranch land is. This makes it more difficult farmers and ranchers in our region to establish or expand thriving enterprises just as an unprecedented number of farmers are reaching retirement age.
Anti-hunger advocates successfully defended SNAP (food stamps) against structural changes and funding cuts. This is a big victory in light of the attacks on SNAP proposed by the House.
- The nutrition title as a whole, which accounts for two thirds of the total funding in the 2018 Farm BIll, fared well. Program funding remained stable or increased across the board, including programs that strengthen food security and local economies, such as Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program, and the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive grants program, which increased its funding. The FINI program will now also include a produce prescription program.
These victories are tempered, however, by more new attacks on SNAP by the Trump administration.
The same day the 2018 Farm Bill was signed into law, USDA announced a proposed administrative rule to accomplish what they could not pass legislatively; structural changes to SNAP. The USDA estimates that the proposed changes would threaten SNAP eligibility of 755,000 workers across the nation. Food pantries, already unable to meet existing demand, will not be able to serve these additional households. Hunger in America will increase.
The proposed rule changes must go through a formal public review period before they can be adopted. Such public review can result in delays, changes, withdrawal or approval. Various national allies are organizing now to oppose the proposed change, including: Food Research Action Council, Feeding America, Center for American Progress, Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and others. This will include providing resources to help people and organizations submit their own “public comment,” an easy process similar to emailing a letter stating your opinion.
We are tracking these efforts and will keep you updated about how you can make a difference on this and other matters relating to implementation of Farm Bill policies and programs. In the meantime, you can learn more about the 2018 Farm Bill and the proposed SNAP rule change using the following links.
By Beth Low-Smith