Farm Bill 2014: This Is Not Reform

President Obama signed the Farm Bill into law on February 7, 2014 in East Lansing, Michigan. Some refer to the bill as a mixed bag. While there are some good provisions, many of which you helped us advocate for over the past few years, the Center for Rural Affairs opposed the final Farm Bill.

Capping Farm Program Payments
We opposed the deal presented by the Senate and House Conference Committee report because it stripped out bipartisan reforms. They had passed both the House and Senate and would have tightened the definition of being “actively engaged” in farming. As you know, the current definition has been a loophole mega-farms use to gain additional payments by defining passive investors as qualified farmers, even though those investors provide no real labor or management on the farm.

Conference Committee leaders actually increased farm payment limits from $50,000 to $125,000 for the primary commodity program. They turned aside real reform passed in both House and Senate to essentially create a commodity program that will provide unlimited payments to mega-farms, no matter how large they get, as long as payments flow to family members.

The final bill also failed to make any headway on limiting crop insurance premium subsidies. Even the mild reform included in the Senate bill that would have barred premium subsidies to those making $750,000 in adjusted gross income was dropped.

This Farm Bill will continue to provide virtually unlimited farm program payments and crop insurance premium subsidies to the nation’s largest and wealthiest farms, placing small and midsized and beginning farmers at a competitive disadvantage.

Livestock Competition
We had wins on several livestock issues relating to COOL and GIPSA. Please check out this weekly column for more details.

Conservation
The bill includes some steps in the right direction for conservation, but it does cut conservation funding. The Conservation Stewardship Program was scaled back to enrolling 10 million acres each year, versus the 12.8 million acres as under the 2008 Farm Bill. This will be especially troubling as current five-year contracts come up for renewal.

The bill does reattach conservation compliance to federally subsidized crop insurance. For decades, farmers committed to adopt basic land management practices that protect against soil erosion and protect wetlands in exchange for a publicly subsidized safety net. This provision attempts to restore that balance, but is not as strong as the compliance measures attached to commodity program payments.

The final bill includes a Sodsaver provision that will significantly reduce crop insurance premium subsidies and yield guarantees on native sod broken for crop production. While we believe the provision should have been national, it will cover six states – MT, ND, SD, MN, IA and our home state of NE, which lost over 54,000 acres of non-cropland to crop production in 2012.

As for the rest of the farm bill, there are some good rural development, local food systems, and beginning farmer and rancher provisions.

Rural Development
While the farm bill includes some vital funding for rural economic development programs, the level of funding falls short of the need. It also fails to recognize that real federal investment in helping small towns and rural entrepreneurs has fallen by half over the last decade. Action to reverse this decline is critical to creating and sustaining vibrant rural communities.

Two programs we believe make a big impact on rural communities are the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program (RMAP) and the Value-Added Producer Grant (VAPG) Program.

The Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program received $15 million total over 5 years ($3 million per year) to continue helping very small rural businesses by providing grants and loan capital to organizations that help these entrepreneurs. That is far short of what is needed to meet the demand of rural entrepreneurs.

Moreover, it does not provide enough funding to allow the program to expand its reach through additional organizations that serve rural entrepreneurs with loans and absolutely critical technical assistance, business planning, and market development. It was just such assistance that helped to launch the expansion of the rural flower shop we profiled in this story.

The Value-Added Producer Grant Program received $63 million over 5 years to help farmers expand markets for, and increase their profitability through, value-added agricultural enterprises. This time around, the program includes a priority for farmers and ranchers who are also veterans. In addition priority will be given to projects that “best contribute” to increasing marketing opportunities for small, mid-sized, and beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.

Local and Regional Food Systems
The bill wisely expands the Farmers Market Promotion Program and renames it the Farmer Market and Local Food Promotion Program. The program will now include grants to farm-to-institution, food hubs, and other projects that that process, distribute, aggregate, or store locally or regionally produced food products. This is in addition to the existing project support for farmers markets and other community supported agriculture systems. The final bill provides $30 million in annual mandatory funding.

While we are thrilled all of these programs, and other provisions that support sustainable and organic agriculture, are included in the farm bill, we believe the lack of real reform on commodity and crop insurance programs is far too damaging to small and mid-size family farmers and rural communities.

Nearly nine in 10 rural Americans say the rural, small town way of life is worth fighting for, but seven in 10 worry that it’s dying, according to a poll of rural voters in over 20 Midwestern, Great Plains, and Southeastern states. This farm bill does not move the needle to address these concerns.

At the end of the day, Conference Committee leaders cannot lay claim to a mantle of reform. This Farm Bill will continue to provide virtually unlimited farm program payments and crop insurance premium subsidies to the nation’s largest and wealthiest farms. And they will use those subsidies to bid up land costs. They will continue to drive their smaller neighbors out of business and bar the next generation of farmers from even gaining a foothold in farming.

This is not reform. This does not reverse decline in rural small towns. We can, we must do better than this.

You can find the proposals we developed for what was then called the 2012 Farm bill here.