For Better or Worse, a Farm Bill – A Quick Wrap-up

At long last, the Farm Bill race of 2012 is over.

The past week has been a flurry of activity in Congress, as the looming fiscal cliff spurred Washington to action.  Despite the public attention on the Farm Bill over the past year, the conclusion to the long drama came not in a fiery showdown but instead slipped – barely noticed – in to the end-of-year fiscal fight.  The bill that passed the House on Tuesday night had tucked into it a nine-month Farm Bill extension that pushed the debate off until later this in 2013.

US HouseThe Fight in Washington

The final fiscal bill vote was 257-167 in the House, with support from a large majority of Democrats and 36% support from Republicans.  The Senate had passed a similar bill in the wee hours of Tuesday morning with a vote of 89-8.  .

A year’s worth of negotiating came crashing together in those final few days as Senate Agriculture Chair Debbie Stabenow and House Agriculture Chair Frank Lucas worked along with their committees to put together a farm bill extension.  However, due to last-minute obstructionism by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, everything from the summer’s bi-partisan compromise – which had passed through the Senate last summer and contained $24 billion in spending cuts – was swept aside with little explanation.  With support from Speaker of the House Boehner and Vice President Biden, the extension bill had little chance of failing.

In the words of chairwoman Stabenow, the extension “reforms nothing, provides no deficit reduction and hurts many areas of our agriculture economy.”

Farm Bill logoThe New Bill

There aren’t a lot of winners in the Farm Bill extension.  Let’s take a few major points from the bill:

Beginning Farmers and Sustainable Agriculture: None of the programs that the National Young Farmers’ Coalition and the sustainable agriculture community pushed for received support in the bill.  This is a huge blow, and came as a surprise, given that even over the weekend there were strong indications that many of these “orphan” programs would receive the same level of support as they did in 2012.  

Instead, all these programs – everything from the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) to the National Organic Cost-Share Program to the Value-Added Producer Producer Grant Program (VAGP) – are left with no mandatory funding for 2013.  One effect, for example, is that at present, no new farmers will be able to enroll in the Conservation Stewardship Program, designed to assist in improving soil and water conservation.  This “blatantly anti-reform” deal, in the words of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, is a bitter pill for the beginning farmers and the sustainable agriculture community to swallow.

Crop Subsidies: One of the few things that almost everyone could agree on is that the direct payment crop subsidies needed to be reformed.  The stalled Senate and House bills from last summer, for example, eliminated direct subsidies and instead expanded access to crop insurance.  The extension ignored all arguments and continued the program exactly as is, with a one-year price tag of $5 billion.

Dairy Reform: The so-called “dairy cliff” that could have seen milk prices rise to $7 per gallon because of an automatic reversion to a 1949 government price protection system was averted, but not in a way that support the actual dairy producers.  Instead of using the language from the Dairy Security Act that was brought up earlier this year, the bill merely extended the current Milk Income Loss Contract (MILC) program that stabilizes prices while benefiting milk processors.  In the words of Jerry Kozak, President of the National Milk Producers Federation, the vote “is a devastating blow to the nation’s dairy farmers.”

Food Stamps: The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or Food Stamp program, received an unexpected boon – while earlier Senate and House versions directed cuts to the program, the extension kept the program exactly as is.  

Moving Forward

It’s important to remember that there is a silver lining.  The bill that was rolled into the fiscal cliff resolution is not the normal five-year bill.  It is only an extension – pushing the deadline to September 30, 2013 – thus giving Congress the year to work on a real bill.  As the new Congress convenes for the first time this week, an early priority will be working on a real Farm Bill – one that will do better to “work for our farmers and rural communities as well as American taxpayers,” in the words of Chairwoman Stabenow.

The countless farmers and food and farm advocates who fought last year for a fair Farm Bill should not take this news as anything more than a temporary setback.  Indeed, while the Farm Bill fight of 2012 was overshadowed by the most-hyped and highest-expense election season in American history, 2013 – with it’s new slate of politicians – can focus on true reform with fewer distractions.  We in the sustainable agriculture community can continue to gather together, raise our voices, and demand true positive change.  Let’s have this eleventh hour vote be not a defeat, but a call to arms.

On New Years Day, an End to the 2012 Farm Bill Season

Farm Bill logoWell, the Farm Bill race of 2012 is over, although the new bill is only a nine-month extension tacked onto the far larger fiscal cliff bill.

The final vote last night in the house was 257-167, with support from a large majority of Democrats and 36% support from Republicans.  In the end, the landslide of approval for the bill was an aversion to actually going over the fiscal cliff – since Tuesday was a national holiday, today was the deadline for resolution. 

The farm bill passed easily, but only because of its integration with the fiscal cliff debate. Ignoring the voices of countless farmers, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was able to sweep aside the past year’s work by the Senate Agriculture Committee, while in the House the looming fiscal cliff meant that passing any bill was better than passing a good one.

Overall, we are incredibly disappointed with this result.  The loss of mandatory funding for so many essential programs – as well as no reform on subsidies and a milk reform that favors big distributors over producers – is quite a blow.

There is a silver lining, however.  The bill that was rolled into the fiscal cliff resolution is not the normal five-year bill.  It is only an extension, giving the new Congress the year to work on a real bill.  Just when you thought it had to be over, it gets stretched out again!  

Yesterday’s vote shows us that this is an incredibly important time to be keeping tabs on what’s going on in DC and to be pushing for true reform.  We are excited by the prospects of the new year ahead, and the amazing work that we can all do together to further the mission of the beginning farmer and sustainable agriculture movement!

A Sharp Twist in Farm Bill 2012/2013

The great Farm Bill saga of 2012/2013 took a major turn for the worse last night as the Senate passed a new Farm Bill extension.

US Senate in sessionIn a rapid about-face, the Senate passed a nine-month Farm Bill extension that continues prominently wasteful policies from the last bill and ignores a slew of conservation and beginning farmer programs.

At 1 AM last night, the Senate approved the Farm Bill extension as a part of the larger fiscal cliff bill by a vote of 89-8, and the House is expected to vote on the bill later today.  This bill, which side-steps the work that Senate Agriculture Chair Debbie Stabenow and House Agriculture Chair Frank Lucas have been doing, is in lieu of the House Farm Bill extension that NYFC reported on yesterday.

The gist of this bill is this:  

  • The direct payment subsidies for commodity production that both the House and Senate agriculture committees had earlier agreed were in need of reform are instead continued exactly as is.  For another full year they are locked in at a price tag of $5 billion.
  • All of the targeted programs that focus on beginning farmers and sustainable agriculture – everything from the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) to the National Organic Cost-Share Program to the Value-Added Producer Producer Grant Program (VAGP) are completely left out.
  • Other crucial reforms were also shut out – disaster aid is completely excluded (despite the fact that 2012 saw the worst drought in 50 years), and the dairy crisis that has been receiving a lot of attention in the past few weeks will see only a temporary solution.

There is still some room for improvement before the House votes, but this is certainly a tragic turn for the worse at the last minute.  We will keep you up to date as events progress.

PRESS RELEASE: Young Farmers Win in Proposed Farm Bill Extension


Key farmer training, cost share and farm business support programs would be extended for one year in House proposal

TIVOLI, NY — The National Young Farmer’s Coalition (NYFC) supports the proposed extension to the 2008 Farm Bill, as filed by the House of Representatives on Saturday. This last minute measure will provide funding for critical farm programs that lost all funding when the Bill expired in October of this year.

“If passed, the proposed House extension package would be a huge relief for the nation’s farmers and consumers,” says Lindsey Lusher Shute, Director of the Coalition. “Congress is standing up for the programs that are strengthening independent farms and local food systems, including beginning farmer training, organic certification cost share, value added processing and farmers market promotion. These support programs can make or break new farm businesses.”

The House introduced the one-year extension of the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 over the weekend and is expected to vote on the extension before the end of the year. The Congressional Budget Office’s analysis of the bill can be found here.



Link to release



New Guide: Learn what FSA loans can do for you

Fall Line Farms; cooperative, co-op; Richmond, VA. Photo by U.S. Department of Agriculture

Fall Line Farms; cooperative, co-op; Richmond, VA.
Photo by U.S. Department of Agriculture

The FSA has just released a clear a concise explanation of its different farm loans and policies in an online publication entitled “Your guide to FSA Farm Loans.” 

The guide is specifically written for those considering assistance for starting, expanding, or purchasing land for a farm or ranch.  While the best thing for you to do is get in touch with an FSA officer who can work through the processes with you, take a look at this document first to decide if FSA loans can work for you and to learn more about what you are looking for.

The FSA offers several basic types of loan programs:

  • Farm Ownership Loans, which help you purchase or enlarge a farm or ranch, construct or improve farm or ranch buildings, pay for soil and water conservation and protection and pay closing costs.
  • Operating Loans, which help you with annual operating expenses and help pay for livestock and equipment purchasing.
  • Emergency Loans, which are for those suffering a qualifying loss caused by natural disasters that damaged the farm or ranch.  These loans can restore or replace property, help with production costs for that year, help with certain family expenses, and refinance certain debts.
  • Conservation Loans, which help complete an approved conservation practice
  • and the Land Contract Guarantee, which provides certain financial guarantees to the seller of a farm or ranch through aland contract sale to a beginning or historically under-served farmer or rancher.

The guide is available to read here. Take a look, and feel free to let us know how it worked out for you!  We are always interested in hearing from beginning farmers on how well these programs help them out –  our goal is to make sure beginning farmers get all the support they need.

FSA logo

How Important is the Farm Bill? The USDA Responds

As we all know, Congress is working to put together a new Farm Bill to replace the last five-year bill that expired earlier this fall.  A lot of farmers have been up in arms to make sure that the new bill is as good as (or better than!) the old, but a lot of folks too have expressed a lack of concern – after all, how important is the Farm Bill?

USDA logoWell, the USDA just published a call-out for input on the bill (see details at the end of the post) with a good overview of how far-reaching the bill’s effects are.  Most people first think about the economic programs that the bill covers.  But think about this: the Farm Bill isn’t just for farmers.  It covers things like environmental conservation and wildlife rehabilitation programs (that affect everyone who enjoys the great outdoors, not just farmers!).  It covers responses to natural disasters (which we’ve seen a lot of this year).  It covers food safety, research, business assistance, not to mention nutritional assistance.  It is huge!

In the USDA’s own words, “from the rural youth looking to take over the family farm to the urban gardener looking to grow fresh produce on the rooftop of their apartment building; from aspiring beginning farmers to outdoorsmen; from farmers market lovers to grocery store regulars, the Farm Bill is everywhere.”

Got your own opinions on why the Farm Bill is important?  Tweet at @USDA with the hashtag #MyFarmBill and let them know what’s at stake for you without the 2012 Food, Farm and Jobs bill.

GIPSA Begins Investigation of Sheep Price Manipulation

Sheep picSheep farmers: have you seen problems with lamb prices recently?

The USDA’s Grain Inspection Packers & Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) has opened an investigation of the U.S. sheep market in response to a recent dramatic price decreases.  The investigation aims to reveal whether there is market manipulation by processors that is affecting prices.

At the heart of the issue is the fact that the processing sector for lamb is highly concentrated – in the West, for example, only two companies dominate the industry.  The industry is regulated by the Packers and Stockyards Act, which prohibits prohibits price manipulation and other unfair and deceptive practices.

The GIPSA investigation came about through the petitioning of a bipartisan group of US Senators (Senators John Thune, Max Baucus, Tim Johnson, Jon Tester, John Hoeven, Kent Conrad, Mike Enzi and John Barrasso), along with Rep. Noem (SD).
According to Bill Bullard of the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America (R-CALF USA), sheep producers need to immediately call GIPSA to inform them about any conduct or actions by lamb buyers and meatpackers that have contributed to the sharp price decline. Without direct information from affected sheep producers, GIPSA will not know where to direct its investigation.

Here are a few examples of the type of information GIPSA will need to conduct an investigation:

  • Did your lamb buyer tell you the packers don’t need your lambs?
  • Did your lamb buyer tell you the packers are killing their own lambs and so you will have to wait to sell yours?
  • Did your lamb buyer tell you the packers are cutting back production in order to drive up lamb and mutton prices?
  • Did lamb buyers/packers refuse to bid on your lambs?
  • Did you have difficulty in entering a forward contract to sell your lambs?
  • Did you have difficulty selling your lambs?
  • Did anyone in the sheep industry tell you the packers have the power to keep lamb prices low and they intend to use their power to do just that?
  • Did your lamb buyer impose any new restrictions on your ability to sell your lambs?

These are just a few examples, but any information you may have that you believe has contributed to the decline in lamb prices would be extremely helpful.

Who to Call: If you are a sheep producer and have any information that you believe would be helpful to the investigation, please call or write:

Tom Duggan
Business Practices Unit Supervisor
Denver Regional Office
3950 N. Lewiston, Suite 200
Aurora, CO 80011-1556
Phone: 303-375-4263

USDA’s “Know Your Farmer” Compass Expanded

(KNY)2 Compass logoThe USDA just expanded their “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” Compass, an online database of resources for farmers, now including resources from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Labor, EPA and many other federal agencies.

The Compass is a searchable map of projects that have received some form of support for food work from the federal government.  The goal is to show the resources that the USDA – and now other federal agencies – provide and to see how they affect specific communities.  The map is viewable at the USDA website here.

The “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” project began in 2009 as a way of raising awareness of and supporting businesses and communities that are focused on local food systems.  Earlier this year, we reported on this blog about the introduction of the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” Compass, a searchable map of USDA programs and the communities they support.  Has a group or business you work with got federal support?  You may be on the map already!  Check it out here: “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” Compass.

Database of EQIP Deadlines Now Available From OFRF

The Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) has compiled a one-stop database for information on applying for EQIP Organic Initiative grants, available here.

NRCS logoEQIP – the Environmental Quality Incentives Program – supports voluntary conservation programs for farmers and ranchers.  It offers financial and technical assistance to eligible participants to install or implement structural or management practices on agricultural land. 

The Organic Initiative is for applicants who are certified organic producers, transitioning to organic, or sell less than $5,000 in organic produce annually.  It is intended for implementing conservation practices that help fulfill requirements in an Organic System Plan, such as:

  • Developing a conservation plan or a transition to organic production plan
  • Establishing boundaries and buffer zones
  • Improving soil quality and organic matter while minimizing erosion
  • Improving pest management
  • Developing a grazing plan and improving grazing resources
  • Improving waste utilization, composting, and irrigation efficiency

The OFRF database includes application deadlines for year 2012 – many deadlines have already passed, so check today for your state. 

With BFRDP, Grassworks Resists Corporate Dairying by Training Young Ranchers

In Wisconsin, as in most of the country, the path to becoming a teacher or a lawyer is well defined. But suppose you want to become a dairy farmer without a farm to inherit: That career path is less certain. And, with an aging population of farmers, it’s more important than ever to educate the next generation of ranchers. Many farms without successors are being sold to become large animal confinement operations. Wisconsin’s Bureau of Apprenticeship Standards and GrassWorks Inc, a non-profit that provides leadership, education and resources for grass-based farmers, are offering an alternative. Their apprenticeship program is graduating a group of beginning ranchers trained in “managed grazing” and ready to own their own dairy farms.

Nate in the field

The Grassworks Apprenticeship Program, thanks to funding from the USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP,) hires beginning ranchers to work for a “Master Dairy Grazier” for a two-year, 4000 paid-hours program that includes 288 hours of off-farm instruction, from classes in technical schools to training on herd nutrition and holistic management. During these two years, the apprentices are working towards their goal of farm ownership, whether it is moving into an equity earning system or initiating a farm transfer. Program manager Joe Tomandl reports these individual farm businesses based on managed grazing “…have real success, and they make money. They keep local communities going. They make upper middle class business people and a lot of quality jobs. There’s a real potential for rural economic development here too. And that isn’t saying anything about the environmental benefits.”

Nate Weisenfeld, one of the 11 apprentices in the 2010-12 cohort, fell in love with agriculture on his grandparent’s dairy farm. He worked on a dairy while earning a degree in dairy science and, after graduation, began buying a half-calf each paycheck instead of being paid in cash. After four years he was able to leave the dairy and start milking his own cows. In 2010, he bought a house and 80 acres. Nate serves as a model beginning rancher for the Grassworks Apprenticeship Program. Although he was on track to starting his own business before participating in the program, he has benefited greatly from its resources, especially the network. This summer, when he had some issues he was able to call upon the group for help. “I have a whole Rolodex of experienced farmers… They come out in the field, walk through the pastures and say ‘Here is what I think.’”

Without the BFRDP and the Grassworks Apprenticeship Program, Nate believes he would be working at a factory punching a button. Nate struggled with obtaining loans from regular commercial banks before receiving training from the program. Starting a farm is just too difficult to do alone, he says “It’s absolutely crucial that we have this program.”

Have you signed the petition to support a better Farm Bill?  It’s not too late: sign up now.