Community Agriculture Alliance: 2014 Farm Bill expires, adding to uncertainty

The Agriculture Act of 2014 — also called the 2014 Farm Bill — expired at midnight Oct. 1, but the conference committee, made up of 57 members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, remains squarely focused on getting a bill passed before the end of the calendar year. Bringing together the significant differences between the House and Senate bills was an already difficult task that received an extra layer of pressure leading up to expiration. Farmers Union is optimistic a new farm bill will be passed shortly after the election, but the lapse will have notable, short-term impacts on several programs, including three key conservation programs.

The lapse between farm bills does not affect funding for major, long-standing programs, such as crop insurance or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Expiration of the 2014 Farm Bill has orphaned 39 programs, leaving them without funding. Those programs span 10 of the 12 farm bill titles and support conservation, bioenergy, rural development, research, nutrition, organic agriculture, farmers markets, trade promotion and beginning, military veteran and socially disadvantaged farmers. Because they received mandatory funding of $50 million or less, they don’t have baseline funding beyond Sept. 30, when the federal government’s fiscal year ended.

Mandatory spending on those programs over the course of the five-year farm bill was about $2.8 billion — accounting for 0.6 percent of the $489 billion in total mandatory costs and 2.5 percent of the total — excluding nutrition programs — according to the Congressional Research Service. There are four major conservation programs not on the orphaned list that are also stranded. Those programs are the Conservation Stewardship Program, Conservation Reserve Program, Regional Conservation Partnership Program and Agricultural Easement Program. With the beginning of a new fiscal year, conservation programs would normally be ramping up for new contracts, but USDA must sit on its hands, as it has no authority for new contracts.

The House passed its version of the 2018 Farm Bill on June 21 by a very narrow and partisan margin of 213-211. On June 28, the Senate passed their version on a strong bipartisan 86-11 vote — the most votes a Senate farm bill has ever received. The bipartisan five-year legislation encompasses a broad array of agriculture, nutrition, conservation and forestry policy.

On many key issues related to food and agriculture, the House bill fails where the Senate bill succeeds. This is true for conservation, nutrition and food access, beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers, local and regional food systems, value-added agriculture, rural development and energy programs, as well as when it comes to stemming consolidation and economic concentration in farm country.

American family farmers, ranchers and consumers all benefit from a strong, sustainable and secure food system. As the farm bill is an important part of that system, Farmers Union is urging Congress to pass a bill that improves the farm safety net to deal with the current economic hardship facing farmers, promotes the environmental sustainability of family farm operations and improves access to diverse markets for family farmers and ranchers.

Farmers Union believes the 2018 Farm Bill should do the following.

Provide a strong farm safety net

  • Improve Price Loss Coverage and Agriculture Risk Coverage farm programs, which provide relief for farmers struggling with low commodity prices.
  • Create an inventory management program for dairy production and improve existing dairy programs.     
  • Institute payment limits at meaningful levels to ensure benefits are directed at family farmers.

Promote farm and ranch sustainability

  • Maintain overall funding for conservation programs, which support voluntary conservation activities.       
  • Protect integrity and funding for working lands conservation programs. The Conservation Stewardship Program and Environmental Quality Incentive Program are important programs for promoting active stewardship on working agricultural land.

Improve access to diverse markets

  • Maintain funding for programs that improve access to local, regional and specialty markets.
  • The Farmers’ Market and Local Foods Promotion Program and Value-Added Producer Grants improve market opportunities and increase the farmer’s share of the consumer dollar.
  • At the same time, the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program makes it easier for farmers to transition into organic agriculture.

On July 18, the House voted to form a farm bill conference committee, officially kicking off the process of negotiating the two bills. The Senate appointed conferees and voted to go to conference in early August. Rocky Mountain Farmers Union encouraged the Senate to choose Sen. Michael Bennet as a member of the conference committee, to no avail, but we are thankful Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat from New Mexico, was selected to serve on the committee.

Each member of the conference committee will have some influence over what goes into the final farm bill; however, the main drivers of the negotiations will be the chairs and ranking members of the agriculture committees. In the Senate, they are Chairman Pat Roberts and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow. In the House, they are Chairman Mike Conaway and Ranking Member Colin Peterson.

There may be as few as two meetings of the full conference committee: one that opened discussions, and another to vote on the final conference report at the end of the process. The bulk of the decision-making will likely happen behind closed doors, as it did in the last farm bill process five years ago and not through active meetings of the conference committee as was the norm previously.

Conferees will negotiate with the goal of agreeing to a final package that can pass both the House and the Senate, a monumental task considering the politics around changes to SNAP, as well as the Conservation and Energy titles.

Since conferees were unable to meet the Oct. 1 deadline, Congress may have to pass a short-term extension of the 2014 Farm Bill during the lame duck session. Our hope is, though, Congress will come back to Washington, D.C., after the election, find some compromise on the issues they are struggling with and pass a bipartisan bill out of both houses and send the 2018 Farm Bill to the White House for signature. They must pass some formulation of the two bills by January 3, 2019, though, otherwise the legislation will have to be reintroduced.

Nick Levendofsky is the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union director of external affairs.

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