The farm bill passed – and in today’s Congress, that’s news. But advocates say the bill could have done much more to improve the position of small farms versus corporate interests. And in a light but direct rebuke of the Trump administration, Congress will require the Department of Agriculture to reinstate the position of Undersecretary of Rural Development.
The farm bill invests in new farmers and the rural economy but fails to enact reforms that could help owners of small farms withstand pressures from corporate agriculture, advocates say.
“We are encouraged to see meaningful investment in beginning farmers, conservation, and programs that support rural vitality,” said Anna Johnson, policy manager of the Center for Rural Affairs. “At the same time, we are deeply disappointed that Congress disregarded bipartisan reforms to cap payments to the largest farms and address consolidation in agriculture.”
The bill, which passed both the Senate and the House by wide margins yesterday, is a rare moment of bipartisan compromise in an often-gridlocked legislative environment. But Congress still should have gotten the bill passed more quickly after the last legislation expired Sept. 30, Johnson said.
“Bottom line, farmers and rural America have waited too long for this bill,” she said.
The next Congress needs to keep a close eye on the legislation, according to Johnson. “…[O]ver the next five years, Congress will have a responsibility to keep funding strong for conservation and rural microenterprise development, and boldly address the policies and incentives that reward only the largest farms and drive farm consolidation,” she said
Some groups are criticizing the bill for not going far enough to support farmers who are facing declining income and market access.
“The final farm bill includes several measures that are critically important to [National Family Farm Coalition] member farmers, such as expanded credit and minority farmer rights, and small steps to address dairy oversupply through a milk donation program,” said Jim Goodman, president of the NFFC.
“But as in past farm bills, there is no long-term plan to address oversupply and the low farm prices that are driving farmers out of business every day.”
Goodman said the bill should have included production management, farmer-owned grain reserves and acreage set-asides. He said the bill should have expanded SNAP and done more to connect SNAP recipients with local sources of food.
Conservative groups opposed passage because of budget concerns and lack of inclusion of nutrition program cuts and work requirements in the final deal.
“Not only is this a missed opportunity to enact much-needed reforms to the commodity and nutrition titles, it is also marks a major step backward in the ongoing effort to focus farm subsidies on farmers who need them most,” said Caroline Kitchens, R Street Policy Analyst.
The bill requires USDA to reinstate an Undersecretary of Rural Development, reversing the Trump administration’s decision to drop the post in favor of an Undersecretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural affairs.
Despite the delay and debate that grew contentious at times, the result is a farm bill that mostly continues previous programs.
Some significant outcomes of the final farm bill include the following issues that became controversial during the 2018 debate:
Nutrition programs: The final farm bill deal largely rejected demands by President Trump, retiring Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and current House Agriculture Committee Chair Mike Conaway (R-TX) that would have cut nutrition programs and imposed mandatory work requirements on many Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as “food stamps”) recipients. Most anti-hunger and nutrition advocates are pleased with the final result.
Farm subsidies and crop insurance: Most programs remain intact. Some spending increases are available to the dairy industry, though increases are minimal. A push to rein in payments to non-farming family or business partners was ultimately rejected.
Conservation programs: The final bill cuts millions of dollars of funding from the nation’s largest conservation in terms of acres, the Conservation Stewardship Program. Elimination of CSP appeared to be a real possibility during conference committee negotiations. Conservation spending will remain relatively flat compared with the 2014 bill, though a 500,000-acre-per-year increase in Conservation Reserve Program enrollment is also available.
Clean energy: The final bill retains the current Energy Title of the farm bill, a section the House Republican majority attempted to terminate. One critical component of the energy section is the Renewable Energy for America Program, which provides loans and grants to farmers and small businesses in rural communities for energy efficiency and solar, wind and other renewable energy projects.
Rural broadband: The final bills contain significant investments in funding for high-speed internet in rural communities through a variety of Rural Utilities Service (RUS) Programs.
Interstate Commerce/Local Government Authority: The final bill did not include Representative Steve King’s (R-IA) Protect Interstate Commerce Act (PICA). The provision would have prohibited state and local governments from adding any restrictions on agriculture and food production if the product is offered for sale in another state. Critics say that PICA would have stripped states and local governments of their ability to regulate industrial agriculture in their communities.
Farmer-rancher stress and mental health: The final bill authorizes $10 million in annual spending to establish and operate the Farmer Ranchers Stress Assistance Network.
Farmer training and access: The final bill merged the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) and the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program (also known as “Section 2501”) into the new Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach (FOTO) program.