Update, October 5: On September 30th, the 2014 Farm Bill expired because Congress did not pass a new version of the bill or an extension of the current one. So what now?
For many Farm Bill programs, including crop insurance, commodity payments and SNAP, not much changes because they are authorized and funded to run beyond the Farm Bill cycle. Some of them will run without interruption until the end of the calendar year and some can continue indefinitely.
But for other programs, many of which sustainable agriculture advocates describe as “tiny but mighty,” the expiration of the Farm Bill leaves them high and dry. These programs include beginning farmer training programs, research and transition assistance for organic agriculture and local food promotion programs. Some conservation programs may not allow farmers to enroll due to the Farm Bill lapse as well.
How long we might go without a Farm Bill isn’t clear. The 2014 Farm Bill was actually supposed to be done in 2012, which gives some indication of the difficulty of getting these bills passed in an increasingly partisan Congress. There is some hope in the agriculture community that Congress will pass an extension of the current bill during the lame duck session after the election. Whether or not an extension would put these tiny but mighty programs back on track remains to be seen.
Update, July 6: On June 28, the Senate passed their version of the Farm Bill by a vote of 86-11. Very few amendments were considered on the floor by the full Senate, while others that were considered not controversial were added to the bill without a vote.
Next Steps: The versions of the Farm Bill passed by the House and Senate are significantly different, especially on nutrition programs (SNAP), conservation programs and preemption of local and state laws. Now a conference committee will have to meet to reconcile the two bills. Then the reconciled version will have to be adopted by both the House and the Senate.
Update, June 21: The House passed their version of the Farm Bill this afternoon, by a vote of 213-211. This was the second attempt to pass the bill in the House; the first vote in May failed because a block of conservative Republican members voted against the Farm Bill after negotiations about bringing an immigration bill to the floor broke down. Because the House embarked on the process of considering immigration bills this week, the Farm Bill was brought back for a second attempt and enough Republicans voted for it to pass. Just like the first attempt, no Democrats voted for the House version of the bill, primarily because of the bill’s aggressive cuts to SNAP.
Next Steps: The Senate may consider their version of the bill next week. The House and Senate versions are significantly different, so if the Senate version passes next week, a conference committee will have to meet to reconcile the two bills. Then the reconciled version will have to be adopted by both the House and the Senate.
Update, May 18: On May 18, the House voted on the Farm Bill. The bill was defeated, 198-213. No Democrats voted for the bill (for all the reasons spelled out below), as well as a block of conservative Republicans known as the Freedom Caucus. The Republican leadership of the House had been negotiating all week with this group over the Farm Bill as well as their demand that they be able to bring their version of an immigration reform bill to a vote. When those negotiations broke down, the Freedom Caucus refused to vote for the Farm Bill.
The House leadership has said they will bring this version of the Farm Bill back for a vote before June 22. The Senate Agriculture Committee has still not released their version of the Farm Bill, but says it is coming soon, possibly during the first week of June.
Farmers have been all over the news recently, mostly to put a human face on the economic fallout of a trade war between the U.S. and China. What hasn’t gotten nearly as much coverage is the slow-motion train wreck that the farm economy in many parts of the U.S. has become. While the impact of grain traders and meatpackers being shut out of export markets fits in one article, the combination of corporate control and failed farm policy take a lot more space to unravel. But one place where the long list of problems in farm country should be apparent is the U.S. Congress, especially in the agriculture committees who are supposed to pass a new Farm Bill this year. The committees have spent the last year holding hearings in DC and around the country, and at every stop they heard that the situation isn’t good.
Last week, after months of hype, the Farm Bill moved through the first step in the process. And it looks like farmers are going to have to keep waiting for Congress to come up with farm policies that actually work.
The Farm Bill establishes policies and government support for U.S. agriculture, nutrition assistance, rural economic development programs, agricultural research and much more. The bill generally lasts for about five years. Historically, the combination of programs (and money) for agriculture with programs to help with food access, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), has been enough to move the Farm Bill through Congress as a bipartisan effort. But if last week’s action in the House Agriculture Committee is any indication, not even a sustained economic crisis in farm country is enough to overcome the partisanship that has defined this Congress – which means that the 2018 Farm Bill process is off to an exceptionally dysfunctional start with a focus on policies that benefit Big Ag and factory farms instead of farmers, people and the planet.
Summary of the Agriculture & Nutrition Act of 2018 (H.R. 2)
Last Wednesday, the House Agriculture Committee held a session to debate a version of the bill developed by the committee’s chairman, Rep. Conaway (R-TX). After negotiations on the committee broke down over the issue of who is eligible for SNAP, the session was dominated by Democratic committee members protesting both the changes to SNAP and the choice by the committee chair to proceed with the bill on a strictly partisan basis.
The bill passed out of committee on a party line vote. Here’s a breakdown:
The approach to SNAP will likely be the deciding factor in whether a Farm Bill passes this year. The House bill expands a work requirement for a large category of SNAP recipients, requiring many people to work at least 20 hours a week or spend an equal amount of time in a job-training program to qualify for assistance. It would give $1 billion a year to states to pay for training and employment programs, despite evidence that previous attempts at work training programs have not increased participants’ likelihood of getting a job. What’s more, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that it would take much more than $1 billion to adequately fund state programs to cover all the SNAP recipients who would qualify for training under the House bill. Between the paperwork required by the House bill for SNAP participants to prove they are eligible and other changes in the bill that would make it harder to qualify at all, it is estimated that more than a million people could stop receiving SNAP benefits under the House bill.
Overall, the House bill maintains the approach of the last farm bill when it comes to commodity crops like corn, soy and wheat by emphasizing subsidized crop insurance as the primary farm safety net. Missing is any discussion of the real reforms we need, including restoring grain reserve programs that could be used to provide stability for farmers and rein in overproduction of these commodity crops that end up as cheap feed for factory farms.
For several Farm Bill cycles, large-scale factory farm operations have been eligible to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars from a program called the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to subsidize equipment or facilities to manage the massive amounts of manure they generate. By allowing factory farms to use taxpayer dollars to subsidize their manure management, EQIP funds have helped corporate agribusiness consolidate the livestock industry. The House bill would continue to allow this practice, as well as increase the size of loans to farms that the USDA will guarantee. These guaranteed loans serve as another subsidy to factory farms, which can convince banks to lend them money to expand or build new facilities, with taxpayers taking all the risk.
The House bill would make dramatic changes to conservation programs, ending the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and rolling some portions of CSP into EQIP. These programs serve very different purposes and this change would not only undermine the successful CSP program that provides support for farms that are enacting conservation improvements across their whole operation but could also provide an opportunity for factory farms to sign up for recurring government payments for their conservation practices. (Right now, these facilities can access EQIP, described above, for one-time payments but cannot get longer term contracts under CSP.)
The House bill does have some funding for important initiatives like organic research and tackling fraudulent organic imports, but it aggressively changes programs that help maintain the integrity of the organic label. The House bill would make it easier for big companies to get seats on the National Organic Standards Board and weaken the board’s authority, as well as eliminating a program that offers partial reimbursement for annual organic certification fees, used by many operations who may be starting out in organic.
Blocking Safer Agriculture Standards
An amendment added to the House bill was offered by Rep. King (R-IA) that would prohibit state and local governments from setting standards on the production of agriculture products that are imported into the state if the standards exceed federal law. Rep. King has been pushing this amendment for years, sparked by efforts in California to require better conditions for farm animals that were eventually applied to products coming into California from other states.
The House bill includes several provisions that create loopholes for the pesticide industry, by allowing pesticides to be sprayed in water without adequate oversight, making it harder to challenge approvals of pesticides that impact endangered species and omitting worker protections in the pesticide approval process. The bill also contains a provision that prohibits local governments from restricting pesticide use on private property. Another piece of the bill would exempt about half of existing facilities that generate electricity from biomass from environmental permitting of any kind, which would allow facilities that generate power by burning materials like wood and agricultural waste to emit air pollution with no oversight.
Next Steps for the Farm Bill
The Senate Agriculture Committee has not yet released a draft of their version of the Farm Bill. Because Republicans control the Senate by such a slim margin, the partisan approach taken in the House is not really an option for the Senate Agriculture Committee, so the Senate bill is likely to be significantly different from the House bill.
The next step for the House bill is a vote on the floor, which could come in early May, and will depend on whether the Republicans can gather enough support for the House bill to pass it without Democratic votes. The balance of power in that scenario comes down to members of the right-wing Freedom Caucus and other conservative members who have in the past demanded even deeper cuts to SNAP.
The version of the Farm Bill that came out of the House Agriculture Committee fails to provide a reasonable safety net for farmers or low-income families, weakens successful conservation programs and allows factory farms to use taxpayer money to cover their costs. Tell your Representative this is the wrong way to do the Farm Bill.