Farm Bill Breakdown: What's Not So Great

Obama signs farm billYes, we have a farm bill.  Let me repeat that, for those who’ve been hearing us talk about this this so much over the past two years: we now have a new five-year farm bill.

This marks the conclusion of a monumental effort over the past two and a half years to pass a bill; since the last bill expired, many programs have foundered without Congressional authorization or at best, coasted along on auto-pilot. 

This post is the first of three in-depth analysis pieces on the bill and how it will affect youSince we started our reporting last week with a “it’s good and bad” tone, let’s explore some of those concerns:

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We already discussed the many important advances made in beginning farmer programming, including: full funding for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (federal funding for training programs, set at $20 million per year), the Organic Certification Cost-Share program’s increased funding (to $11.5 million per year), and improvements in how beginning farmers can qualify for FSA loans. 

But despite those wins, we need to also address the large shortcomings of the bill.  As a movement, we can’t sit back once our immediate goals are satisfied; we need to stand together and keep pushing until everyone – farmers and eaters alike – gets the support and representation they need.

Cuts to Nutrition Spending

SNAP signThe first shortcoming is the cut to SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.  The program was slashed approximately $8 billion over the next ten years (total SNAP spending is around $764 billion over ten years).  In comparison, the House proposal from last summer called for cuts totaling $39 billion over ten years, and the Senate proposal set cuts at $4 billion over the same period.  Many of you will remember taking action last summer, calling on Congress to not go through with the House’s plan (and thanks to your efforts, it didn’t!).

SNAP and the other nutrition programs account for a majority of the bill as a whole and serve 48 million Americans in an average month.  Not only is this assistance absolutely critical, but it is also completely in line with NYFC’s vision of a better food system, with sustainably-grown food available for all.  However, even beyond the principled argument for SNAP, we see any cuts to the program as direct cuts to farmers.  Improving access to food means improving the market for farmers, including beginning farmers.  Conversely, taking away people’s spending ability means less money into the hands of food producers and a contraction of the economy as a whole.  This is a concern we as producers need to take seriously.

The way the cuts were made has some rationality.  By eliminating the “heat and eat” provision, qualification for SNAP benefits no longer rests alone on qualification for other low-income benefits, such as subsidized heating.  The concern with that connection was that states could provide only small amounts of heating assistance so federal food programs would kick in.  But even with this reform, the savings should have been rolled in to better SNAP coverage.  As we slowly recover from the recession, now is not the time to withdraw critical assistance for those in need.

Despite the cuts, it’s important to note that we saw some positive changes to nutrition programs as well.   The bill creates a new Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive grant program to be used by farmers markets and grocery store programs to encourage fruit and vegetables consumption by SNAP beneficiaries.  Other changes make it easier to use SNAP benefits to participate in CSA’s,  triple funding (to $30 million per year) for the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program and fund pilot projects for improving wireless technology to use EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) at farmers markets.

Lack of Commodities Reform

NSAC meeting with Harden

NYFC farmers join others to meet with USDA Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden in Washington, DC to discuss concerns and opportunities in the new bill.

The second concern is in crop subsidy reform.  Although this hasn’t been a main focus for NYFC, it’s an important farm bill provision that can’t be ignored.  As it stands, a lot of federal spending goes to crop insurance and commodities programs (about 68% of the non-nutrition part of the bill).  While commodities programs are incredibly intricate and difficult to break down in a single blog post, we can safely say that reforms were needed.  (Actually, we have a pretty good guest post that summarizes the need for reform here.)

The new bill instead increased payment limits to 150% of both the House and Senate’s earlier proposals and it still allows large farm corporations to completely flout the rules by claiming additional payments for “active personal management”, effectively making any limits worthless (in other words, the caps are per-person, so by adding “active managers” on paper, they rapidly increase the total allowed payment for the farm).  We would have liked to see better language to curtail that abuse, along with more logical payment limits and an income-related cap to receiving such government benefits.  Without those, we fear we’ll continue to see the centralization of agriculture into larger mega-farms, making it all the more difficult for beginning farmers to get started.

All in all, these are serious problems with the new farm bill.  As we stated last week, we chose to support the bill because we felt that in this case the good outweighs the bad.  But that doesn’t mean we can ignore the shortcomings, nor does it mean we shouldn’t keep pushing for a better food system for us all.

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