Farm Bill Politics 7: We Have a Deal! Listener Q&A and Young Farmer Wins with Andrew Bahrenburg


After months of waiting, we have a farm bill! Just before 10pm on December 10th, the 2018 Farm Bill dropped. The next day, the Senate passed it through in a landslide, and on Wednesday, the House followed suit. Andrew Bahrenburg, NYFC’s National Policy Director, fields some listener questions about what it all means for young farmers and the future of ag. Lindsey is joined in the studio with podcast editor Hannah Beal and NYFC’s Communications Director, Jessica Manly.

Click here for NYFC’s detailed analysis on young farmer wins in the bill.

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Episode Transcript

Lindsey:                 This is the Young Farmers Podcast. I’m Lindsey Lusher Shute, at 10:00 PM on Monday the farm bill dropped, the next day the Senate passed it through in a landslide, and on Wednesday the house followed suit. Now it’s on to President Trump to catch us up on what happened, I called up Andrew Bahrenburg, our National Policy Director in DC. I’m also joined here today in the studio by Jessica Manly, our Communications Director, and Hannah Beal, our Editor. They’re going to be passing on some questions from listeners.

Julia:                        Hi, I’m Julia Asherman, farmer at Rag and Frass Farm in Jeffersonville, Georgia, and a leader of the Middle Georgia Young Farmers Coalition. I’m a member of the National Young Farmers Coalition because it’s so important for young farmers to work together to create change. For $35 a year, you can join too, in addition to being part of a bright and just future for agriculture in the United States, you’ll also get discounts like 40 percent off Filson and 25 percent off Farm to Feet socks. To join go to youngfarmers.org.

Lindsey:                 Great to speak with you, this week we are doing a little bit different show. We’ve decided to pack our recording studio here with people to ask you questions. I’m here with Jessica, Young Farmers Coalition, our Communications Director.

Andrew:                 Hello Jessica.

Jessica:                  Hey Andrew.

Lindsey:                 And Hannah Beal, our beloved podcast editor.

Hannah:                Hey.

Andrew:                 What a great crew.

Lindsey:                 Yeah, so Andrew, I have a few questions about what’s going on with the farm bill or what happened with the farm bill this week and then Hannah and Jessica are going to pass on a few questions from our @youngfarmerspodcast, Instagram. All right, so Andrew, congratulations. We have a farm bill that has now passed the House and the Senate this week, by a landslide.

Andrew:                 It is finally done, and as they say, done is good.

Lindsey:                 And is there any doubt that President Trump is going to sign this thing by the end of the year?

Andrew:                 No, I don’t think so. I think he’ll likely use this as an opportunity to, to signal to rural America and to farmers, his strong support for them. It helps that this thing passed the House and Senate with like almost a comically high vote totals and record setting, I might add.

Lindsey:                 Record setting how?

Andrew:                 The previous record for most votes for final passage of a farm bill was 319. Yesterday’s vote was 369 to 47. The Senate vote was, was equally lopsided 87 to 13. So you’re really looking at both parties for the most part, supporting this thing, getting it done with only one week left to go in the congressional session.

Lindsey:                 And Andrew, did you actually go down to the floor to observe at all or were you on C-SPAN while these votes were happening?

Andrew:                 Yeah, I actually did go to the Senate gallery to watch, which is difficult because you have to surrender your cell phone and all electronics, which is really hard. But yeah, that was really interesting to watch, particularly on the Senate side because the way that these things work and anyone who’s watched a vote on C-SPAN senators are coming in, walking up to that dais, looking at the vote sheet and then signaling yes or no. And so of course, the two managers of the bill, Chairman Pat Roberts from Kansas, who’s the Republican chairman of the committee, and Debbie Stabenow, the top Democrat on the Senate Ag Committee were both standing there at the table and trying to do some last persuasion for members that were on the fence. They wanted as many votes as possible. So it was interesting to see, especially Senator Chuck Grassley, who’s a member of the committee, signal the day before that he was going to vote no, in part because the bill, the final bill, did not include his restrictions on Title One commodity subsidies, crop insurance, premium subsidies. He was pretty upset about that.

Lindsey:                 Yeah, I was pretty surprised that Grassley, I mean maybe I was alone in this, being surprised, but I thought that Grassley’s amendment would be included in the final package.

Andrew:                 Yeah.

Lindsey:                 The Grassley amendment, was that if you’re, there’s no, basically no AGI limitation, there’s no adjusted gross income limitation, for someone receiving, a company farm receiving, farm subsidy payments. Right?

Andrew:                 The other, the other piece that he’s been doing battle on is that in order to be eligible for any of those subsidies or payments, you need to be actively engaged in farming and that’s to combat, so a lot of, a lot of dollars still go toward, you know, quote unquote farm managers even though, especially in large scale modern agriculture, your farm manager, maybe someone who doesn’t live or set foot on the, on the far more than once or twice a year.

Lindsey:                 So I guess for those advocates looking for reform on commodity programs, that didn’t really happen. The House proposal to expand the number of people eligible for commodity subsidies, including first cousins, nieces and nephews, that also made it into the final package. So if anything there, there was an expansion of who’s eligible for those benefits.

Andrew:                 So when you look at the smallish handful of members who voted against this final farm bill, in the house, there were, there were three Democrats who voted against it largely because of the inaction on what they see as those, the subsidy loopholes. Not all three of them had put out statements, so reading the tea leaves a little bit here. I think for, you know, for a member like Earl Blumenauer represents Portland and is seen as a very, very progressive member including on agriculture, in fact even wrote his own alternative farm bill that probably would extend to the cuts to conservation programs that are in this final bill. And just the lack of overall funding for things like climate change mitigation. But on the Senate side it was entirely, I’m the most conservative Republicans who are objecting to, the loopholes, the lack of inclusion of the Grassley amendment, but also of course, because it does not have the work requirements that were included in the house bill for for nutrition programs for SNAP.

Lindsey:                 Yeah, SNAP remained virtually, the food stamp program, nutrition program, remained virtually unscathed in the final deal.

Andrew:                 Yeah. That really is the big story of this whole farm bill cycle is that, you know, I’m in the house when the house bill, which included those very divisive work requirements and restrictions on snap eligibility. That’s the reason that the first time it went to the floor, every single Democrat voted against it and it ultimately failed when the members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus joined Democrats who voted against it, in order to gain more influence in other investigations. And then when it finally did pass the house, it was by only two votes. So obviously that was not going to pass the Senate where you need 60 votes to do almost anything. The lack of those, in the final bill is really the big story that’s being told and is obviously getting all of the headlines on this. But that’s the reason that in fact, in the house yesterday, more Democrats than Republicans ended up voting for this thing.

Lindsey:                 Collin Peterson, he was quoted as saying, I’m just proud to turn a partisan bill into a bipartisan bill, which obviously it did turn into a bipartisan bill in the house according to the votes at least. So to catch listeners up, like what, what was responsible for this significant turnaround? Because, I don’t know, a couple months ago it was really unclear how the house proposal and the Senate proposal, how those were going to come together because they were, they were just so far apart.

Andrew:                 Of course, credit goes to negotiators and their staff. I mean I want to give like a hardy, shout out to members of the House and Senate Ag Committee staff on both sides who worked around the clock to make this happen, their like the unsung heroes, but right. The dynamics throughout negotiations was both the top Republican and Democrat in the Senate side saying those SNAP requirements are politically toxic. They will not pass the Senate. If you don’t give up on those things, then we will not have a farm bill this year. And then Collin Peterson, the top Democrat on the house saying the same thing, right? And Chairman Conaway, I guess to his credit, dug in until the very, very last minute. And that probably is the story of why in fact, those, commodity subsidy loopholes were expanded, is that was sort of his, a bit of a bargaining exchange. Right. I’ll give up, I’ll give up on this SNAP demand but leave me these things, but really, I mean, aside from those big, you know, kind of tectonic battles. The other story, and this gets into NYFC priorities is just how many stranded programs that were incredibly vulnerable are made permanent in this bill.

Lindsey:                 I want to get to the successes, but I also just want to acknowledge like what a huge impact the election had on, on the farm bill as well. And I mean that really forced Conway’s hand to come to the negotiating table.

Andrew:                 Yeah. There’s no way that didn’t have something to do with it. So I think there was also an understanding that things changed in the house. Politics didn’t change much in the Senate. And so even a bill, if a bill were to get done in the next congress, it would probably look something like the one that we got this week.

Lindsey:                 So Andrew, we have written and just to point out to listeners, we have a great blog post @youngfarmers.org that enumerates the many wins that young farmers came away with in this, in this farm bill. So rather than list them all on the air because there were like 20 or so, I’m really exciting and important things that happened in the farm bill, I want to get to some of the listeners’ questions that I think will get us to some of those, those important points as well. So Jessica and Hannah have this list of questions that we’re going to go through.

Andrew:                 Alright, let’s do it.

Lindsey:                 @s.clausner from Instagram is wondering, What mechanisms does the new farm bill implement which aid young farmers with the cost of land acquisition?” So maybe you could talk a little bit about land provisions and wins on cost of land and land ownership.

Andrew:                 This is an area that we’re really happy with, to come away with some big wins for land access, for young farmers. For one thing, funding was almost completely restored for the primary federal investment in protecting farmland, which is a program called the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program. In the previous farm bill, it was funded at $500 million a year. However, in the final year of the previous farm bill, that funding was cut in half to $250 million dollars. So just getting that funding backup to it’s, close to its, previous amount is huge, but there were also some, and it gets a little bit wonky, but there was some reforms to that program that we’ve been advocating for for some time that make it easier to use for land trusts who are an important component there. The partners who are actually doing the farmland protection. But we, there are some changes in this farm bill, that allow them to do stronger easements where they can now, they’ll now be able to purchase farmland that is going to go onto the market, put a conservation easement on it, and then be able to sell that now conserved farmland back to another farmer.

Andrew:                 And when that happens, sort of at the point of sale, putting the easement on it, then lowers the sticker price of that farm. So that’s one important way that it can make it, can make it more affordable for young farmers to access. And there’s also a provision in there that gives USDA an extra nudge to consider farmer ownership as an important component of protecting farmland.

Lindsey:                 So just to sum it up, I mean basically this, this farm bill, it makes conservation, land conservation, conservation a more, it makes it a more viable option for reducing the price of land such that young farmers can buy it. And also it really creates the availability of much more affordable credit directly from the USDA for a farmer looking to purchase their first farm, which is long overdue and really terrific.

Andrew:                 Yeah, exactly. And real quick, just two other things we’re excited about on the land front one is it directs a lot more data collection and reporting from USDA that will give our colleague, Holly and our policy team a lot more ammo to work with headed into the next farm bill. And then the other big story is we managed to get permanent funding for the beginning farmer and rancher development program and one of the things that program funds is a land linking programs.

Hannah:                All right, next question on the list from Hannah. @Sullivanbutcooler on Instagram is asking about agricultural unions and if there isn’t anything relevant about that, maybe about agricultural cooperatives.

Andrew:                 Yeah, sure. I’m not sure about agricultural unions, but definitely this farm bill does reauthorize a program called the World Cooperative Development Program. And maybe that’s what this listener is getting at. That’s a small program that does important work funding nonprofits and other organizations to help farmers and other folks organize.

Jessica:                  Awesome. Alright. Clyde, on Twitter, he’s wondering about programs that might assist small family farms and maybe this is also related to urban farms or farmers that are working with really small plots. Are there any provisions that are especially helpful for them?

Andrew:                 Yeah, there’s definitely lots to like for small scale producers, particularly those selling direct to consumers or servicing local regional markets. So there’s one new program, that sort of a combination of some of those smaller programs called the Local Agriculture Marketing Program, LAMP, that would increase funding for, and make permanent programs like the Farmer’s Market Promotion Program, Local Food Promotion Program, Value Added Producer Grant. It has some new provisions around regional food systems planning, all with an eye toward expanding local and regional markets for those small scale producers on urban agriculture front this is a huge victory for Senator Debbie Stabenow and urban ag. There’s going to be a new position at USDA, the Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production, that is meant to really move the ball forward and help that industry expand and innovate. It does some things like, you know, helping some of those urban farms like get farm numbers, which is an important step toward accessing a lot of USDA programs. Right. You have to demonstrate that you are in fact a farm before you can apply for most of those things. A lot of this is like catching up to the speed at which the urban farming sector has really been moving lately.

Lindsey:                 Yeah, Andrew, just to follow up on that, do you think USDA with this, these new programs put in place and initiatives, do you feel like they’re going to be able to carry them out or do you have any sense of their support for like this, this new urban agriculture emphasis?

Andrew:                 Certainly having a new office established at USDA is gonna help with that. What you’re getting at is like where we’re headed and that’s the next phase of the farm bill. Right? So we’re, we’re taking this week to celebrate a little bit, but the farm bill is not over right until all of these programs are fully implemented and working the way that they’re intended, especially for a lot of these new programs, the USDA may choose to, to really speed things up, implementing some programs, but if there are certain things that they don’t like in this farm bill they can really take their time. Say writing the new rules and kind of slow walk the implementation of some things. So the game is definitely not over yet.

Lindsey:                 Yeah, absolutely. Hey Andrew, of those 800 pages, how many have you actually read?

Andrew:                 Jeez, I will say not every single one of them.

Lindsey:                 You don’t have to answer that question.

Andrew:                 I mean, it’s funny the bill itself, the language came out at about 10:00 PM on Monday night. No one was expecting to come out until the following morning. So of course, you know, you spend as much time as you can, stay up as late as you can reading it. And I think the first round, the way that we approach it is we first do keyword searches to find all of our priorities. So if you, if you do control f and type in beginning farmer, you can go through all of those and we will continue to be going through section by section to see if there is, so it’s like a treasure hunt really. It’s kind of fun for “ag nerds”.

Hannah:                All right, we’ll move onto the next question. Okay, many people are wondering, “What about hemp?”

Andrew:                 Oh, what about hemp… Hemp will now be a legal crop to grow in the United States.

Lindsey:                 So nationwide as opposed to having like state by state sort of authorization?

Jessica:                  Yep, exactly. That’s going to be a big deal and I’m sure a lot of journalists are going to be writing about that over the next few months, especially because there’s a lot of investors, a lot of money sitting on the sidelines ready to stand that sector up in a big way. CBD oil is, is trending so hard, you know, of course it has tons of uses and fiber, you know, the seed is edible and nutritious. It’s got tons of uses even as a building material. So…

Jessica:                  And there’s some confusion about this. We’re not talking about marijuana–hemp and marijuana are different, right?

Andrew:                 Don’t spark up that, that doobie just yet, Jessica.

Jessica:                  Asking for a friend…

Lindsey:                 It is. This is for a, hemp is a relative of cannabis, but that does not have psychoactive properties, of course, like in states where it’s legal that will remain legal, but of course in a largely tenuous way since the federal government still has it on its list of, of scheduled narcotics. Yeah, that’s definitely a big trend. It’s definitely something we’ll be reading a lot about and particularly for those traditional tobacco states that has been looking for kind of a replacement crop as demand for traditional tobacco has waned. This could be a big lifeline for a lot of those growers who are seeing a shrinking industry.

Lindsey:                 So I think we have time for one more question. Okay, so Michael on Twitter is wondering about programs and funding for mental health and wellness for farmers.

Andrew:                 This farm bill does, reauthorize the Farm and Ranch Stressing Assistance Network, which is intended to provide farmers and farm workers with mental health resources and stress assistance. The program’s intent is to essentially push federal dollars out the door, get them into the hands of service providers, community based organizations that are working with farmers, and provide them with the range of services. And it’s really one of those issues, one of the few actually where the entire ag community has come together, to say this is really important. So that would have not, unfortunately, it does not come with mandatory funding. So we’re going to have to stay on Congress to make good on that investment.

Lindsey:                 So National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition largely praise the farm bill, but they were one of the groups that also was critical of the $800 million cut to conservation programs. Can you talk about what that cut is and what it means for farmers?

Andrew:                 So, right. That’s definitely one of the dark spots, of what we otherwise feel is a pretty positive bill. The Conservation Stewardship Program really just quickly, is intended to incentivize long term conservation practices on farms so the cuts to that program obviously hurt, the good news, I guess, or the silver lining of that is that those cuts went to fund other conservation programs.

Lindsey:                 So the money was when more or less reallocated into other programs not cut out of conservation altogether.

Andrew:                 Exactly. Yeah.

Lindsey:                 And okay, so my last question for you, Andrew, is just about how effective do you think young farmers were in this farm bill campaign, over the last really two years for Young Farmers Coalition and then the intense debate has been happening really over the last year, over the last eight months? How much do you think young farmers influenced the bill from, from your perspective? I mean we had a fly in, we brought young farmers to D.C. Then we had convergence, where we had 100 of our farmers and members walking, walking the halls and going into offices and meeting with all of the leadership. Have you sort of seen that impact?

Andrew:                 Yeah, the young farmer movement really, really showed up for this farm bill. The ultimate proof of that is just looking through this bill and at all of the things from, directly from, our policy platform, the Young Farmer Agenda, that are in this final bill that is going to be signed into law by president. Obviously that doesn’t happen by accident, right? I mean, we started this campaign two years ago with the National Young Farmers Survey, to collect as much data as we could to, to provide that supporting evidence. And it’s been a deliberate two year campaign to influence members of Congress to build those relationships without those things, you can imagine so many of these issues could have been just left on the cutting room floor. Especially because a lot of them are small tweaks that, that don’t get the headlines that, you know, if you don’t show up for them and continue to, then they, they may not make it into the final bill. Our presence here, I mean we’ve, we’ve really found her voice in this, in this farm bill and it shows.

Lindsey:                 Yeah, I want to congratulate all the listeners who were part of those actions, online, who made calls, who showed up in D.C. or invited a member out to their farm or went to a district office. I mean, I think you’re absolutely right. That young farmers definitely showed up for this fight and it’s so gratifying to see like in the language that they’re in it, right? Like, like the problems that they were facing, there are solutions and in such, like overall such a difficult political and partisan moment. Like, you know, we’re seeing a bill that is passed with these wide majorities. And yeah…

Andrew:                 If you go to our website, youngfarmers.org and you read our farm bill analysis and see things in there that are going to make a difference to you, let your members of Congress know it’s really important to thank them. It’s not always the stick, sometimes it’s the carrot, you know, and we should, we should make people feel the love, now that they’ve shown up for us, you know.

Lindsey:                 Alright Andrew, thank you so much and congratulations on all this progress in the farm bill. We’ll be interested to know when the President’s going to sign this thing and also like what’s, what’s next in terms of writing the rules for all of the new legislation that’s out there and obviously making sure that USDA follows through on these new mandates.

Andrew:                 Alright, take care, Lindsey. Thank you. Yeah, yeah, absolutely.

Lindsey:                 Thanks Andrew and thanks Hannah and Jessica for being in the studio with me today. It’s been fun.

Jessica:                  It was so fun. Bye Andrew.

Lindsey:                 Thank you to everyone who wrote in questions for today’s show. If you have more, just ask them on our Instagram @youngfarmerspodcast. Also, we have a new review this week. Hey, from Billy says, “dang y’all this has turned out to be one of my favorite listens, I learn a lot every week. Appreciate the great mix of people you’ve been interviewing and glad for all the help in unraveling the farm bill process”. Thank you so much for this review. We would love any listeners today to also write us a review. Tell us what you like, tell us what you don’t like, what you want to hear more of. We are open to it all and we will thank you on next week show. This is the very best way to help more people find out about the Young Farmers Podcast. As always, this show was recorded at Radio Kingston and edited by Hannah Beal. Talk to you next week.

 

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