The work of the Agriculture Committees as part of the Super Committee process appears to be a good starting point for mapping out the next farm bill. While the text of the leadership’s proposal has yet to reach the public, many details have emerged, and more has been learned in conversations with the committee leadership and their staff. Here’s our take on what has been revealed so far.
Some measure of cuts to all agricultural programs are expected, but given the challenges we face—including increased pressure on farmland due to population growth, global climate change and growing concerns over water quality—the leadership proposal to cut conservation by 10 percent is disappointing. These challenges were underscored recently by the Food and Agriculture Organization when it noted the need to increase agricultural production by 70 percent in coming years at a time when land and water resources will be under increasing strain.
Despite the disappointing cuts, certain parts of the proposal were positive, including its:
- Support for focusing conservation priorities in areas of highest need
- Streamlining of conservation programs to make them easier to access and more efficient for farmers
- Maintenance of an effective and robust Environmental Quality Incentives Program
As we learn more specific details about the leadership plan, improvements in the conservation title may be needed, but it appears the proposal has put us in a good starting position.
Protecting Our Working Lands
Among the federal conservation programs are those that allocate resources for farm and ranch land protection. We’ve lost more than 23 million acres of farm and ranch land in recent decades here in the United States, and initially the leadership appears to have taken note. They have made a robust commitment to agricultural working lands by funding and improving the effectiveness of a new agricultural land easement program.
Farm Safety Net
We need a farm safety net that provides risk management for farmers that is responsive to markets, complementary to crop insurance, accountable and doesn’t negatively affect the environment. However, accounts of the Agriculture Committees proposal indicate that it looks to institute higher target prices rather than utilize a revenue-based program that would adjust to markets. Further, reports of an overly-generous, shallow-loss program on the farm-level could have detrimental effects, incentivizing farmers to produce on environmentally sensitive land.
As the farm safety net evolves, we have to insure that conservation standards remain in place and evolve with it. The leadership proposal, it appears, failed to reattach conservation compliance to crop insurance subsidies. These are important provisions that provide economic stability for farmers from some of the risks in agriculture while protecting the natural resources that sustain our food supply and provide so many other public benefits.
Healthy Food and Food Systems
The leadership’s proposal acknowledges the growing public interest in healthy, locally produced food. Its changes to address local foods and nutrition are encouraging.
Some of these include funding for the Value Added Producer Grant program and the creation of a new Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program. These measures can also provide exciting new market opportunities for farmers and ranchers.
Notably, the leadership proposal maintained efforts to improve the dietary health of the over 47 million people who are currently food insecure by funding nutrition assistance efforts like SNAP Education and the SNACK program.
Full Speed Ahead
Recently, Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, explained that the committee will proceed with farm bill mark-up in January and February. This would put the process back on the original timetable that Sen. Stabenow and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Rep. Lucas outlined months ago.
But the clock is ticking. The first few months of 2012 will be critical to passing the next farm bill. If we fail to act quickly, we risk allowing the 2008 Farm Bill to expire, eliminating funding for vital programs that support our nation’s agriculture and reverting to the outdated law established for farm and food policy during the Great Depression. Adding to the urgent need for action are our nation’s long-term fiscal concerns and the presidential election just around the corner, which will complicate the policy process further if we do not move quickly.
We must move forward in order to have a measure of certainty that we can address 21st century challenges and enact policies that better serve both farmers and taxpayers.