Senate farm bill is promising, but has concerns

The Senate Agriculture Committee has released a bipartisan bill that provides important support for farmers, ranchers, and rural communities. However, there is room for improvement.

While it would strengthen the underlying policy for conservation programs, it proposes to cut funding for working lands conservation. The bill would also offer greater permanency for many programs for beginning farmers and rural development by combining certain programs.

However, the bill would cut permanent funding for a program that supports rural entrepreneurs, the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program.

While the bill makes some important improvements to our crop insurance system, it does not include proposals for needed structural reform, such as stronger payment limitations for commodity programs and caps on crop insurance subsidies.

Conservation

We appreciate that many proposals from the bipartisan Give our Resources the Opportunity to Work (GROW) Act (S. 2557) are included. It is also very encouraging to see the bill proposes to strengthen the handshake between crop insurance and conservation programs by bringing conservation practices under the “good farming practices” of crop insurance. We are heartened the committee worked across party lines to advance these proposals.

However, lawmakers can improve the conservation aspect of this bill. The Senate has proposed to cut funding for both Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). They also declined to include several proposals from the American Prairie Conservation Act (S. 1913), such as expanding sodsaver provisions to the entire country.

Structure of agriculture

The draft farm bill includes important improvements to crop insurance in the area of access to diversified operations and beginning farmers, and helps strengthen the handshake between crop insurance and conservation. We look forward to the upcoming work needed to ensure these programs are included in the final farm bill

Unfortunately, the Senate Agriculture Committee bill does not address problems with the structure of agriculture. This draft fails to strengthen limitations on commodity payments, despite recent evidence that there is abuse and absurdly high payments in these programs. The draft also declines to place common-sense limits on subsidies for crop insurance premiums. We call on the Senate to enact these important reforms during upcoming deliberations.

Beginning farmers and rural development

Several programs received encouraging support in this bill that was previously lacking. Large programs with more than $50 million in annual funding, such as CSP, are automatically included in the next draft of the farm bill when renewal time comes. However, programs such as the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program and the Value-Added Producer Grant Program, which have received less than $50 million per year in prior bills, are not automatically renewed and have had uncertain futures.

We support the Senate Agriculture Committee’s proposal to permanently preserve the functions of several programs by proposing combined programs and their funding. We are encouraged that the Senate is invested in this important work to support beginning, socially-disadvantaged, and veteran farmers and ranchers; on-farm value-added production; local foods; and farmers markets. If these proposals are ultimately passed into law, we look forward to working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to further strengthen this activity.

Disappointingly, this bill fails to renew permanent funding for the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program, a program the Center helped to write. While comparatively small, this program supports rural entrepreneurs in establishing their businesses and creates jobs in rural communities. We hope the Senate chooses to remedy this oversight during upcoming discussions.

We appreciate that the Senate has proposed to maintain funding for the Rural Energy Assistance Program. This program allows farmers and small businesses access to renewable energy for their operations.

As this bill moves forward through the Senate Agriculture Committee and to the full Senate, we will work to strengthen and improve its support of conservation, beginning farmers, and rural communities.