Senate Passes Farm Bill
The Senate Passes Farm Bill
By Annette Higby, New England Farmers Union Policy Director
What difference does it make when Congress starts talking about your food? Plenty. All kinds of programs and priorities are debated, and amendments and tweaks to legislative language can literally move millions of dollars from one side of the country to the other. Just the two words, “regional equity” and the definition of “rural” impact New England tremendously. Without “regional equity,” New England would not receive a fair share of farm bill dollars for NRCS conservation programs, and the definition of “rural” impacts farms in urban centers throughout our region. It pays to pay attention.
As Congress considers the reauthorization of the farm bill, leading food and farm organizations based in the Northeast have weighed in with the release of A Northeast Farm Bill Agenda: Priorities for the 2012 Farm Bill. New England Farmers Union, with the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group, Wholesome Wave, and more than 300 diverse, food and farm groups in the Northeast, developed the Agenda. It provides a comprehensive and concrete set of policy options to support local and regional food systems, conservation, food security, dairy, organic, and economic development. It addresses the opportunities and specific challenges facing agriculture from Maine to Delaware. Hard and electronic copies of the Agenda were delivered to every office of the Northeast Congressional delegation as both the Senate and House agriculture committees began debating the farm bill.
The process of writing a farm bill usually happens in fits and starts and stalls. In June, the process took one giant step forward when the Senate passed its version of the 2012 Farm Bill. There are some very good things for the Northeast in the Senate bill. The Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012, the official title of the farm bill, accomplishes significant savings over the current farm bill budget while supporting many of the programs crucial to the success of family farmers in New England. It includes new resources for specialty crops and for the promotion of local and regional food markets. The bill includes mandatory funding for programs that will help farmers conserve energy and develop a new generation of biofuels.
It provides cost share assistance for nutrition incentive programs that will benefit our specialty crop producers as well as low-income consumers in New England. It provides important support for organic certification cost share and organic research. It includes “regional equity” language.
The bill also directs the Risk Management Agency (RMA) to develop better crop insurance products for the diversified farms found here in New England. And a floor amendment sponsored by Senators Merkely (D-OR), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), John Kerry(D-MA) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) requires the RMA to complete organic price discovery by 2015 promising to finally eliminate price discrimination for organic farmers who participate in crop insurance.
An amendment offered by Sherrod Brown (D-OH) provides mandatory funding for the Value Added Producer Grant Program and the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. These programs provide important support for local and regional food producers and for the next generation of farmers in New England.
Unfortunately, an amendment sponsored by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and supported by the New England and National Farmers Unions to allow states to require GMO labeling on all food and beverage products failed.
Two other amendments supported by the New England and National Farmers Unions didn’t make the final list of the more than 70 amendments brought to the floor for a vote. Senators Sanders, Leahy and Gillibrand introduced an amendment to lift the payment limit caps on organic programs under the Environmental Quality Incentives Program to the same levels as all other farmers participating in EQIP. And Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) introduced an amendment shifting more research dollars to the development of public seeds and breeds using classical breeding techniques.
Frank Lucas (R-OK), the Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, has said his committee will begin marking up its version of the 2012 farm bill on July 11th. The House Committee bill is likely to make steeper cuts than the Senate, particularly to nutrition assistance programs for low-income consumers. Once passed out of committee, it will have to fight for floor time with a number of other major pieces of legislation, including an agricultural appropriations bill. The House is in recess for most of August leaving just a few short weeks in July to get it to the floor. House leadership, however, has not yet scheduled any floor time for consideration of the farm bill throwing in to question whether the bill can possibly be reauthorized before the current farm bill expires on September 30th.
This has been an unusual farm bill round, and by far the biggest difference to our way of thinking is that, this time around, the Northeast has a seat at the table. With four Representatives and three Senators on either the House or Senate agriculture committees, the Northeast is a force to be reckoned with in this farm bill debate. It has also been important to have the New England Farmers Union voice to bring to the discussion.
Annette Higby is the policy director of New England Farmers Union (www.newenglandfarmersunion.org)
Posted: Tue, Jul 3, 2012
Updated Tue, Jul 3, 2012