A Farm Bill for the Future


 

WARNING: This blog post is long. Why, you ask? Because the 2018 Farm Bill contains so many wins that our movement has spent years fighting for, and we just have to tell you about all of them.

Just before 10pm on December 10th, Congressional leadership released the final version of the 2018 Farm Bill. That bill passed the Senate on an 87-13 vote the very next day. Today, it’s expected to pass the House and go on to the President’s desk.

After months of tense negotiations between House and Senate leaders, and the expiration of the 2014 Farm Bill (and a number of small programs along with it) on September 30th, the final version: rejects House Republicans’ attempts to impose strict work requirements on SNAP recipients; rejects the House proposal to eliminate the USDA’s largest working lands initiative—the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP); rejects House attempts to eliminate Value-Added Producer Grants (VAPG), organic cost-share, and local food promotion programs; and it rejects highly contested and controversial amendments to erode environmental protections and undermine state and local laws.

What the bill does invest in is young farmers and ranchers. The voices of our network of farmers and supporters, fighting together for a bright and just future for agriculture, were heard.

The bill directly addresses the Young Farmer Agenda that we built together, including:

  • Increased and permanent funding to train the next generation of farmers;
  • Increased and permanent funding to support veteran farmers, farmers of color, and indigenous farmers;
  • Increased and permanent funding for programs that support local food and expand regional markets;
  • More funding for farmland protection and reforms that will help farmers gain access to affordable land;
  • Reforms to loan programs that increase flexibility for beginning farmers and reflect the increased cost of farmland;
  • Establishment of a beginning farmer and rancher coordinator in each state;
  • Authorization of the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network to provide mental health resources to farmers and farmworkers who need them;
  • Preservation of the Organic Certification Cost Share Program.

These wins are the result of years of organizing: farmer surveys, listening sessions, text and email actions, testimony in front of Congress, hundreds of face-to-face meetings between farmers and their elected officials, and a series of stand-alone marker bills introduced. When over 120 young farmers went to Capitol Hill just last month for NYFC’s Leadership Convergence Lobby Day, these are the policies and programs they were fighting for.

And those are just the top highlights! Without further ado, read on for the NYFC policy team’s full analysis of what’s in the final 2018 Farm Bill for young farmers and ranchers!

PERMANENT FUNDING FOR PROGRAMS FORMERLY KNOWN AS STRANDED PROGRAMS

  • Durable increases for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers. From the start of this multi-year farm bill campaign, two of NYFC’s top priorities have been to establish permanent and increased funding for two small but critical programs: the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP), which funds technical training, business planning, farmland access, and other support to new farmers, and the 2501 Program, which provides outreach and assistance to farmers of color, indigenous, and veteran farmers and ranchers.Both of these programs have been threatened with elimination each farm bill cycle because they lack “mandatory baseline” funding. This means they’re deemed too small to be automatically extended if a farm bill expires. That’s what happened in 2013, when they went unfunded for an entire year, and that’s what’s taken place since the 2014 Farm Bill expired on September 30th.No longer. The 2018 Farm Bill increases funding for both programs to make them permanent–not only for this farm bill, but future farm bills. Specifically, it combines BFRDP and 2501 into a new Farming Opportunities, Training, and Outreach (FOTO) Program, and puts them on a path to receive nearly triple their funding over the next ten years.
  • Local food programs are here to stay. But those aren’t the only vulnerable programs made permanent! The Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program (FMLFPP), which expands local and regional markets for small-scale producers, and Value-Added Producer Grants (VAPG), which help farmers make on-farm upgrades to develop new products and diversify their businesses, were both eliminated in the version of the farm bill passed by Republicans (H.R. 2). These programs are now folded into a new Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP) and increased to permanent funding.
  • Other programs stranded no longer. FOTO and LAMP aren’t the only “tiny but mighty” programs boosted into permanent funding: the Organic Research and Education Initiative (OREI) that helps farmers develop new practices to become more productive, efficient, and profitable, and the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) program that provides low-income consumers with cash incentives to increase their purchasing power at places like farmers markets.

It’s hard to overstate how important this is for our movement. We will no longer have to fight every farm bill cycle just to save and merely continue these programs, and no longer will the lights go off when Congress misses a deadline.


MAJOR ADVANCES IN THE FIGHT FOR AFFORDABLE FARMLAND

Land access is the top barrier young farmers and ranchers face, and solving this challenge is at the very core of NYFC’s work. Farmers have made it clear–without farmland, there is no future with farmers–and Congress listened: the 2018 Farm Bill makes major investments in land access for the next generation of farmers.

Access to land is an incredibly complex issue. To begin to tackle it, we break it down into three key components: making sure that farmland is available, that all farmers can access it, and that it is affordable on a farming income. This farm bill contains major wins for farmers in all three of these areas. It increases funding for farmland protection; it increases the Farm Service Agency’s lending capacity for farm ownership and flexibility to lend to beginning farmers; and it tweaks the farmland easement program in a way that will help farmers gain access to more affordable farmland.

What does this look like in the legislation itself? The 2018 Farm Bill will:

  • Increase funding to keep farmland from being developed. Directing public dollars toward protecting our nation’s agricultural land from development is a key way in which the farm bill helps keep farmland available for the future. This farm bill increases the investment in farmland protection through the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) to $450 million per year in mandatory funding–a significant increase from the $250 million it received in 2018.
  • Buy-Protect-Sell. The bill allows for so-called “Buy-Protect-Sell” transactions within ACEP, in which a land trust purchases vulnerable farmland, protects it with a conservation easement, and then transfers it to a farmer. This is an innovative and critical tool in getting young farmers on the land because, by enabling land trusts to add a conservation easement at the point of sale, it can significantly reduce the total price of the farm and make it accessible to younger producers. It also allows land trusts to move quickly in getting priority farmland off the open market, where it’s often sold to non-farmers, and then find a farmer or rancher to sell it to.
  • Encourage priority for projects that keep farmers on the land. The 2018 Farm Bill gives the Secretary of Agriculture authority to prioritize projects that protect farm viability and farmer ownership. The new bill expressly allows land trusts and other farmland conservationists to use stronger easements that guarantee the land will be affordable to future generations and stay in farmer ownership.
  • Improving credit access and recognizing the increasing cost of land. Farm Service Agency (FSA) direct farm ownership loan limits are increased from $300,000 to $600,000, reflecting the significant increase in farmland prices over the last decade. These FSA loans are often the only option available for young and beginning farmers to purchase their first farms, but the $300,000 limit is too low in many regions to cover the full cost of the property.  NYFC has heard from numerous farmers that this disconnect has left them without a farm. We have serious concerns that another tweak to FSA’s loan programs that was made to raise the limit of guaranteed loans to $1.75 million will tip the scales further in favor of large-scale farms, but the increase for direct farm ownership loans is an unquestionable win for young farmers who dream of buying farmland. An additional win when it comes to credit access is that the bill will add flexibility for beginning farmers to be eligible for FSA loans, reducing the three year management requirement for individuals who have demonstrated experience in other ways like training and mentorship programs or military service.
  • Addressing heirs’ property. The crisis of land loss and displacement in the United States continues to disproportionately impact people of color and indigenous peoples, and we have a long way to go to address centuries of inequity. For many African American and other landowners of color, particularly in the South, lack of access to the legal system due to systemic and structural racism has meant that farmland transferred from generation to generation has been without formal legal documentation. This means that ownership of that farmland becomes highly fragmented across generations, as many heirs own a fraction of the land but all lack a clear title to use it. Heirs who farm on that land are, therefore, unable to obtain a farm number from USDA or access any of the tools available to most farmers and ranchers. The 2018 Farm Bill will solve this long-standing problem by allowing these farmers to obtain a farm number using alternative documentation. It also creates authority for a new revolving loan fund to help farmers trying to resolve heirs’ property issues and disputes.
  • More USDA accountability and reporting on emerging issues. As we continue the fight for land access, the 2018 Farm Bill will provide plenty of new material to work with. It requires a new report on farmland ownership and transition, with recommendations for reducing barrier for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers; it calls for a similar report on absentee landlords and their impact on farmland access and rural economies; it creates a new Commission on Farm Transitions to study the problem and make recommendations to Congress; and it requires the Government Accountability Office to investigate barriers for farmers of color in accessing credit and the lending practices of agricultural lenders toward socially disadvantaged farmers.
  • Transition Incentives Program expanded. The Conservation Reserve Program’s Transition Incentives Program (CRP-TIP) which incentivizes landowners with expiring Conservation Reserve Program contracts to rent or sell farmland to beginning, socially disadvantaged, or veteran farmers and ranchers, sees a big increase in funding to $50 million per year in the Senate bill.

 

CHANGES TO CONSERVATION PROGRAMS TO REFLECT A CHANGING CLIMATE

  • CSP Saved: The biggest news on the working lands conservation programs is the retention of the nation’s largest conservation program, Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which was eliminated in the House version of the farm bill. CSP does not escape the 2018 Farm Bill unscathed, however, as it does receive significant cuts with most of those funds being reinvested in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), as well as into ACEP.
  • Improved access to EQIP: Despite the funding woes, young farmers may have improved access to the available conservation funding by the bill’s fix EQIP’s advance payment option. The advance payment option allows socially disadvantaged, limited resource, and beginning farmers to receive up to half of their EQIP payments up front (the program usually reimburses farmers after installing a conservation practice). Few of these farmers are taking advantage of the advance payment, however, because they don’t know its an option. In this bill, all farmers that qualify will automatically be notified before signing their EQIP contract.
  • New focus on climate change: Another major win for young farmers is a new emphasis on building on-farm climate resilience and soil health in all of USDA’s conservation programs. Both EQIP and CSP will now include drought mitigation and “weather volatility” (i.e. climate change in Congressional speak) as challenges to be addressed by the programs. EQIP even has a new Soil Health Demonstration Trial, which will direct funds to practices that help build soil carbon and improve soil health. Additionally, USDA can now work with new partners like acequias and irrigation districts on drought mitigation to improve agriculture water efficiency upstream from the farm, championed by many farmers in the western U.S.
  • But funding cut overall for conservation: But it’s not all sunshine for young farmers when it comes to the conservation programs. Overall, the bill cuts funding for EQIP and CSP by roughly $4 billion over 10 years. Although the Senate’s version included two of NYFC’s priorities, a “microEQIP” initiative and increasing the funding set aside in EQIP and CSP for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers, these items didn’t make the final cut. NYFC remains committed to working with Congress and USDA to ensure young farmers have the tools to address drought, climate change, and other environmental challenges.

 

MORE WINS

  • Beginning Farmer and Rancher Coordinators established. The bill delivers on the longstanding NYFC priority to establish a Beginning Farmer and Rancher Coordinator in each state to  improve outreach and assistance to new farmers, develop new strategies to support them, and connect the dots among service providers and USDA offices. The bill will also establish a National Beginning Farmer and Rancher Coordinator to oversee the work of state coordinators and issue a publicly-available annual report on steps taken to better serve beginning farmers.
  • Organic Certification Cost-Share saved. Farm bill negotiators have rejected the House attempt to eliminate the National Organic Certification Cost-Share Program (NOCCSP), which lowers the barrier to organic by helping to offset the costs for farmers. Though its funding is trimmed in this bill, it will continue to function as a small but important service.
  • Mental health services for farmers and farmworkers. The bill reauthorizes the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN) to provide mental health support to farmers and farmworkers, and requires a report by USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services on the state of mental health among farmers and ranchers.
  • New crop insurance benefits. The bill expands the definition of “beginning farmer and rancher” from a five to ten years for Whole Farm Revenue Protection, the new risk management tool for diversified growers. This will allow beginning farmers to qualify for better coverage rates for an extra five years. The bill also directs the Risk Management Agency to research and develop new crop insurance tools that reflect emerging trends in agriculture, including direct-to-consumer marketing and hops.
  • Boost for urban agriculture. The bill recognizes the emergence and importance of urban agriculture by creating a new Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production at USDA and authorizes new grant, research, and risk management programs to support urban growers and help expand the sector.
  • Individual Development Accounts reauthorized. The bill will again authorize Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Accounts to support the next generation in saving and investing in their businesses, but the bill does not provide mandatory funding.

There are still major obstacles ahead of us: soaring land prices; student loan debt; increasing drought and climate volatility; and roughly two-thirds of American farmland poised to change hands over the next two decades. The campaign we’ve built together must tackle these issues next.

If you haven’t already, there has never been a better time to join this movement by becoming a member of the National Young Farmers Coalition.

 

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