Equity Advances in the 2018 Farm Bill: Special Report

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November 26, 2018

The current Farm Bill, passed in 2014, expired on Sept. 30. Our most critical task during this post-Thanksgiving final session of this Congress is to assure it moves the best version possible of the 2018 Farm Bill to final passage before it adjourns. Here we remind you of what we have accomplished together in this Farm Bill Season, what we need to protect, and what we still need to fight for.

Current Status

The House Agriculture Committee completed a Farm Bill package with deep reductions and fundamental program changes in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The bill, which also slashed investments in conservation and reduced support for equity, local and regional food systems was sent to the House floor in May. Paired with a controversial Agricultural Guestworker program, it failed a House vote. Resubmitted in June as a self-standing bill, it narrowly passed, 213-211.

Senator Pat Roberts (R-KA) and Ranking Member Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) worked with the Senate Agriculture Committee to produce a Farm Bill that protects nutrition programs for the most vulnerable members of our society and advances rather than reverses the hard-won, long-term gains Rural Coalition and its members have long supported for equity in agriculture, conservation, and credit programs. Their bipartisan Farm Bill, which passed on June 28 on a vote of 86-11, included support for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), conservation and local food programs. There are also several specific wins, detailed below, that we are now working to keep in the final bill.

The two bills were sent in early July to a joint House-Senate conference committee assigned to resolve differences and create a single bill that could win final approval in both the House and Senate before being sent to the President for signature. The joint conference did not complete a compromise bill before the previous Farm Bill expired and Congress recessed for the just-completed November elections.  Congress also left incomplete final passage of the bills needed to fund the government, with a short-term extension that expires December 7.

 

What Happens Now?

As the current Congress returned for its post-Thanksgiving final lame-duck session, negotiations among the Agriculture Committee Chairs and Ranking members from both the House and Senate have moved forward. There seems to be a renewed interest in reaching agreement in time to send a combined bill back to the House and Senate floors before Congress adjourns for the year in mid-December. 

New issues, including the need for increased funding for fighting forest fires, have arisen.  The impact of trade negotiations may also influence the final bill. The major issues remain – especially the interest in protecting nutrition program funding and integrity and assuring that the final bill meets budget constraints. Preventing the addition of workfare requirements in the SNAP program is a major concern for all but the House Republican leadership, which strongly supports including them. 

The other key concern is how funds will be invested in several new, more comprehensive approaches to equity (e.g. see detail on the FOTO program below) which require funding increases, while protecting nutrition, conservation and other key programs from reductions. 

Waiting until January to finish the bill became a less attractive option following the outcomes of the November 6 elections. The newly elected Congress, which convenes in early January, includes a House of Representatives that will turn over from Republican to Democratic majority. The incoming Senate, however, will have greater Republican control. 

While the newly-elected House might be much more willing to pass a new version of a Farm Bill with more money for nutrition and other programs as advocated by anti-hunger groups, such a bill would have a harder time clearing the new Senate.  The new Congress could also send the current bipartisan Senate bill as-is to the new House where it will very likely pass. However, waiting until January for the new Congress has downsides. Producers already face a more difficult agricultural climate due to tariff and trade uncertainties and wide scale disasters.  Producers will need to know what programs are in place in order to prepare for spring planting.  Additional delays also mean critical outreach, technical assistance and education program funding and authority will not be in place to help community-based groups and educational institutions assist producers in learning new programs.  Given budget and other constraints, even with more time, a better bill would still be hard to achieve. 

The current Congress has just returned for its post-Thanksgiving lame duck session.  Its most critical task is to extend funding for the whole government for this fiscal year, which began on October 1. A short-term package passed before the elections expires on December 7.  With respect to Agriculture, such a package might extend funding for current programs at current levels. However, there are numerous 2014 Farm Bill programs, including the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers and the Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Development Program that expired on September 30. Unless full Farm Bill passes in coming weeks, special action would be required to renew their authority and funding for the current year.

However, right after the election, the House and Senate Agriculture Committee chairs and ranking members resumed their negotiations. They have just announced they have completed negotiations on a compromise bill which also includes additional funding for fighting forest fires. The bill has been sent to the Congressional Budget Office, which will “score” or tabulate the total estimated cost of the bill to see if meets budget targets. If it does, it will likely be sent to the House and Senate floors for final passage and then on to the White House for signature. 

 

What Would a New Farm Bill Bring?

 

The Farm Bill package that Senators Roberts and Stabenow includes a strong bipartisan stance on ensuring food access for all communities, by retaining funding and authority for the crucial Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Their bill also increases support for the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentives program and related initiatives to strengthen local food systems.

 

The Senate’s bipartisan bill provides a stronger basis to advance key aspects of the legislative packages endorsed by Rural Coalition and more than 100 organizations in the recent Equity sign-on letter. It is important to acknowledge–even as Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts (KA) and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (MI) admit–that this bill is the best of what could be passed at this point given stiff budget constraints and a contentious political climate. That said, the Senate bill has enough valuable features to make moving forward quickly on a final bill a better option than others and preferable to having no bill or even a continuing resolution.

 

Now is the time to call on your members of Congress to complete a fair farm and food bill. Urge all Senators and House members to assure the final 2018 Farm Bill is completed, and that it:

·      Extends SNAP funding as in Nutrition Title in the Senate Bill without the very stiff and bureaucratic workfare requirements in the current House bill. Those provisions would create hunger and deepen poverty for vulnerable Americans, including children and families, and burden States with implementation and the costs of constructing an underfunded bureaucratic infrastructure.

 

·      Provides Fair Access for Farmers and Ranchers “heirs property” language (in Senate Sections 12623, 12624 and 12625) that will ensure that more farmers — especially African-American farmers and farmers of color operating on land with undivided interests – or heirs property (land passed on by previous generations to multiple descendants) — can now access USDA programs that enable them to protect the soil and water; continue to operate viable farms that feed their communities; and pass farming vocation and farmland on to future generations. This section was developed by Rural Coalition with its members including the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, Oklahoma Black Historical Research Project, Inc., Land Loss Prevention Project, and Rural Advancement Fund of the National Sharecroppers Fund, with critical support from the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts and support from the National Association of Conservation Districts.

 

·      Expands and Improves Opportunities for all Farmers to Access USDA Programs - The Senate Bill Section 12301 creates the new Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach (FOTO) Program, which strengthens the historic Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program and also links it the closely related Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Development Program. It would then provide permanent authority and permanent funding of $50 million annually, shared equally between the two programs.

 

·      Legalizes and regulates cultivation of Industrial Hemp by removing it from the controlled substances list and allowing tribes, states, and territories to establish regulatory structures within their boundaries that allow farmers and ranchers to produce a high value cash crop while retaining federal farm program benefits that were previously not allowed.

 

·      Provides small steps forward in Credit and Dairy Policy, including equitable relief in credit to protect producers against errors made by the lender.

 

·      Creates a new Local Agricultural Market Program (LAMP), which merges authorities and provides baseline funding for a streamlined new program linking the previous Farmers Market Promotion Program, the Local Food Promotion Program and the Value-Added Producer Grants Program.

 

·      Protects overall conservation funding and program integrity in a tight budget climate and assures that access to conservation programs for historically underserved producers is prioritized. (Note: funding cuts in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Easement Program in the Senate bill are of concern.)

Stay Informed and Educate Your Policy Makers

We invite all our members and allies to join our Rural Coalition policy network to stay informed on key actions needed to protect our wins and see the 2018 Farm Bill to final passage.

We encourage everyone reading this to join us for our 10th Annual Winter Forum and 40th Anniversary Founders Dinner on December 13-14 in Washington, DC.

 

*See our new website https://www.ruralco.org/ for more information*

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