Photo: IIP Photo Archive/Flickr

With The Farm Bill Expired, Will Science Stall?

, senior scientist | October 10, 2018, 4:48 pm EST
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We’re well into October, and there’s still no farm bill in sight. My colleagues have written about some of the 39 programs that are left unfunded—including programs that improve nutrition for low-income consumers and help local food systems thrive. All the stranded programs together account for only $2.8 billion of the nearly $1 trillion farm bill. But they provide significant value, and none less than the research and education programs now in budgetary limbo.

In this post, I’ll focus on the three such programs: Organic Agriculture Research and Extension, the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, and the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research. Depending on how long Congress leaves these programs hanging before passing a new farm bill, important agricultural research and extension, and the field of agroecology, could suffer.

Three essential programs, three reasons to protect them

The farm bill is the foundation for dozens of critical research, extension and education programs, many of which I’ve written about before.  I’m focusing on just three in this post, however, because these are the only ones in the bill’s Research Title that do not have a “budget baseline”, causing trouble when the farm bill expires. Without action, these programs won’t be able to fund new projects, leaving a substantial gap.  Let’s take a closer look at why it would be a mistake to put any of these three critical programs at risk, one program at a time.

1. Beginning farmers and ranchers need a steady stream of support.

By now you’ve probably heard that the average age of the US farmer is 58, and has been on the rise. Meanwhile, the number of farmers has been in decline, dwindling to fewer than 2.1 million in 2017. And, at a time when we need beginning farmers, challenges such as low prices, trade wars, and climate change are standing in the way.

The USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) is one of the programs left stranded by the sidetracked farm bill process. Among other things, this crucial program supports beginning farmers (including veterans, as shown here) with much-needed technical assistance.

Fortunately, initiatives have cropped up to support beginning farmers and ranchers, among the most important of which is the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP).  This competitive grant program received $100 million in the now-lapsed 2014 farm bill and, over 9 years, has funded 291 collaborative education, extension, outreach, and technical assistance projects across nearly all states.  BFRDP also sets aside grants each year to support socially and financially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, as well as military veterans, who are going into agriculture, ensuring that 5 percent of total program resources reach each of these groups.  Delaying funding for BFRDP, which was specifically developed to ease barriers for new farmers, could unnecessarily create a new set of hurdles instead.

2. Organic research and extension are already dwarfed by swelling demand

Research specific to organic farming systems is sorely needed to enable farmers and the industry to respond to the demand for organic products, which continues to grow.  Furthermore, such research has proven helpful for agroecology and sustainable agriculture more broadly.  These research areas have received relatively limited investment, thus organic research programs can be instrumental in filling key gaps.

In this vein, the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension program, which received $100 million in the 2014 farm bill, has played an important role in US public agricultural research funding over the past decade. For example, over nearly a decade, the Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) has supported 111 research, education, and extension grants for highly competitive research distributed among 37 states. But, if the program’s hands are tied while a farm bill battle drags on, this high-demand, urgent research will remain on ice.

3. Why wait to stretch dollars and spur innovation?

Limited agricultural research support is particularly pronounced in some areas, such as for beginning farmers and for organic systems, but it is also generally the case that US public agricultural research funding has been in decline. With funding in short supply, making each dollar go further is of the utmost importance.

It was in this context that the 2014 farm bill established the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), with a budget of $200 million and a mission to match those funds with equal or greater non-federal funds. Through this public-private partnership model, FFAR has been leveraging these research dollars to fund innovation in cutting edge areas, including healthy soils, sustainability, urban food systems, and more. In the case of these partnerships, a delay in additional public funding threatens to leave not just public dollars on the table, but private dollars as well.  Why risk it?

Delaying public research in some of our nation’s most important agricultural research programs would be a very unfortunate side-effect of the sidetracked farm bill process. But this outcome is fully preventable.

The whole issue could be avoided by passing a new farm bill as soon as possible, ideally one that prevents these important programs from being stranded in the future (side note: the Senate bill makes funding for BFRDP and OREI permanent, resolving this problem for the long run, while renewing support and securing an additional $200 million in funding for FFAR).  But in the meantime, an extension of these high value programs could also do the trick.

Regardless of the path that’s taken, keeping these programs funded in the short-term should be a priority. Tell Congress that farmers and ranchers are counting on them.

Photo: IIP Photo Archive/Flickr
Photo: USDA/Flickr

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  • big t

    Why such emphasis on organics when the vast majority of the farm bill expenditures is directed towards corn soy beans and other commodities. Why should organic growers be supported when the specialty crops growers all the fresh produce that is grown and supplied in this country are suffering the most and account for the highest percentage of farms closing because the sons and daughters see it is impossible to make returns that the generations before have made.primarily because of over regulation by govt

    • Marcia DeLonge

      Thanks for reading, and for your comment! I fully agree that there are many areas where greater investments are needed to support farmers. In this blog, I made a point to highlight each of the three research title programs that have been stranded by the farm bill process. BFRDP is crucial for exactly the point you’ve made about the need to support the next generation of farmers, and FFAR is also outstanding it its attention to hurdles faced by a wide range of farmers and ranchers (not just commodity crop producers). While OREI does emphasize organic producers, it funds research that can be beneficial to both organic and non-organic farmers. In fact, we found in a detailed analysis of US public research funding that OREI supports a lot of agroecology research that can benefit diversified farms more broadly, including specialty crop growers. All three of these research programs offer valuable research support that does not need to lapse just because of the farm bill expiration. But, beyond the current farm bill process, more support for all farming operations, including beginning farmers and specialty crop growers, is indeed sorely needed.