How a (Farm) Bill Became a Law

February 10, 2014 | 5:06 pm
Karen Perry Stillerman
Deputy Director

Much has been written about the ugly sausage-making of the just-ended farm bill process: the abandoned opportunity to truly reform the nation’s farm subsidy system, the cynical refusal to deny subsidies to millionaire farmers, and the 4 percent of food stamp beneficiaries who ultimately took it on the chin. But now that President Obama has signed the thing into law, it’s worth reviewing a number of real and meaningful wins that UCS and its allies and supporters achieved in this bill. And also noting that our work isn’t done.

I sat down with UCS senior Washington representative Daniel Brito to talk about the top three items in our victory column, and what happens now.

The 2014 farm bill--signed, sealed, delivered.

The 2014 farm bill–signed, sealed, delivered, at last. (Image courtesy of David Kosling/USDA)

Win #1: Doubling down at the farmers market

As UCS showed in our 2011 report, Market Forces, farmers markets and other distribution channels for locally-grown produce and other foods can have positive benefits for public health, job creation, and local economies. Still, shopping at farmers markets is often seen as a luxury for the privileged.

“This farm bill takes an important step toward democratizing that experience, and the nutritional benefits that come with it, by significantly increasing investments in farmers market programs,” says Daniel.

The final bill incorporated a number of provisions from another legislative proposal, the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act (LFFJA). UCS worked closely with the office of Rep. Chellie Pingree to develop the LFFJA, at Rep. Pingree’s invitation after the release of Market Forces in 2011.

Among other provisions, the LFFJA created the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentives Program, which will allow recipients of federal food assistance to increase the value of their benefits for purchases of fresh produce at the market. The program, which provides matching grants to markets that redeem the extra (perhaps as much as doubled) benefits, will be funded at the full amount UCS and others requested—$100 million over five years.

The new farm bill also reauthorized and expanded the Farmers Market Promotion Program, which will now offer grants to launch and expand local “food hubs” as well as farmers markets. Last year, I profiled New Mexico’s La Semilla Food Center and NYC’s Harvest Home Farmers Market, just two of the many local organizations that have received funding for farmers markets through this program. The new Farmers Market and Local Foods Promotion Program is now authorized at $30 million. And a related program has nearly doubled in size in the newly-passed farm bill. The USDA’s Community Food Projects program provides grants to community groups like La Semilla that are working to increase food security and nutrition with projects such as urban gardens, demonstration farms, and programs that provide training for youth in farming, culinary skills, and nutrition.

“Community Food Projects had been funded at $5 million per year, but the program was left without funding when the last farm bill expired at the end of 2012,” explained Daniel. “We asked Congress to increase funding to $10 million per year, and they came close, authorizing $5 million the first year and $9 million each year thereafter. Taking this program from ‘stranded’ to nearly doubled funding is a great turnaround.”

Win #2: Ensuring the harvest…of fruits and vegetables

In 2012, UCS identified a major problem in federal farm policy that effectively discouraged farmers from growing a variety of fruits and vegetables, or from transitioning to organic methods. Unbelievably, those farmers weren’t eligible for federally subsidized crop insurance to guard against risk, as most other conventional mono-crop farmers have been for many years. I explained the problem more thoroughly here, and our report recommended reform of federal crop insurance as a way of stimulating expanded local fruit and vegetable production, with all its attendant benefits.

We advocated for what’s known as “whole farm revenue” insurance—as the name suggests, it would insure a farm’s production overall, not single crops.

“This kind of insurance was previously only available in certain places, in a bureaucratic form that was so difficult to use that few farmers bothered to try,” says Daniel. “The new farm bill makes this program national and usable, creating a new incentive for farmers who want to grow a diversity of healthy foods.  We’re very excited about this expansion.”

Win #3: Encouraging organic

Finally, the bill reauthorized a number of programs that help organic farmers, but that have been without funding since they expired with the last farm bill more than a year ago. These include the National Organic Certification Cost-Share program, which reimburses up to 75 percent of a farm’s costs associated with getting certified. That program has been renewed at the level UCS advocated in the LFFJA—$11.5 million annually.

While it doesn’t directly serve farmers, the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) helps them indirectly by funding scientific and economic research to improve organic production. This important program is now funded at $100 million over five years.

“The development of new seeds appropriate for organic systems, that can thrive without toxic pesticides, or in a changing climate, or specific local conditions, is absolutely critical to bringing organic and sustainable up to scale,” says Daniel. “Research initiatives like OREI can increase our future food security, roll back the growing corporate control of seed stock, and increase the options available to farmers seeking alternatives to chemical-intensive monoculture. More generally, we call it ‘seeds and breeds,’ or public cultivar development, and public research dollars are vital to this effort.”

An unfortunate loss…

While the local foods and organic programs fared well in this farm bill, the USDA’s conservation programs didn’t make out as well. With our “healthy farm vision,” UCS advocated for increased funding for programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program, which provide incentives for farmers to prevent water pollution, plant cover crops, and preserve wildlife habitat. Unfortunately, these programs have been cut by $6.1 billion, or 9.5 percent over 10 years. (Our friends at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition—UCS is a member—have more details here.)

Still, there’s good news: compliance with basic conservation rules—measures to protect soil and wetlands—are again a condition for receiving crop insurance premium subsidies. “That just seems like common sense,” says Daniel. “But it hasn’t been the case since the 1996 Farm Bill.”

Getting to work on implementation

With the legislative wrangling finally behind us, UCS and others turn to the details of how the USDA will implement its various provisions. As Daniel explains, our work is just beginning, and we’ll need lots of public support in the months ahead to get the job done right:

“This feels like the end of a long, winding, treacherous road, but we have a critical new mission that starts now. We’re making up for lost time, and it’s exciting to have these critical tools in the new Farm Bill to scale up local regional, organic, and healthy food access. We’re also very fortunate to have leadership at USDA right now that is very receptive on these issues, especially when it comes to the jobs that can be created by local and regional food systems. They get it, and that is a Big Deal. This alignment of legislation and leadership creates a truly historic window of opportunity.

We’re very grateful to our champions like Rep. Pingree and Senator Sherrod Brown for planting the flag with the LFFJA, and keeping up the fight during a long, hard legislative slog. Leadership is needed, but we are also building a movement. This started at the grassroots, with farmers, foodies, parents and scientists, a whole range of people who care about food, the land, and the people that depend on this system. You are still the future of this movement, and your engagement is more important than ever.”

It’s National Heart Month, and Valentine’s Day is this Friday…get a head start on the holiday by sending an e-Valentine to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. Ask him to maximize our farm bill victories by prioritizing heart-healthy fruits and vegetables through USDA-funded programs and research. Click here to choose and send your Valentine now!