Over the last few years, we have not been used to compromise in Congress. However, the new Farm Bill represents a good show of bipartisanship and it holds new opportunities for farmers in Maryland.
Most farm groups across the country appear to support the Bill. In an email to members, the National Young Farmers Association (NYFA) came out with full-throated enthusiasm for a number of elements in the bill, noting that “many of the challenges that we face in starting new farm businesses – access to capital, land and training – will be addressed in the farm bill.” NYFA’s enthusiasm comes from policies that they strongly supported, including:
- the continuation of funding for beginning farmer training programs,
- the continuation of the microloan program,
- assistance by the Farm Service Agency in farm ownership loans,
- market and contract protections for livestock and poultry farmers,
- a farm “viability” component in the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, and
- the requirement that farmers receiving subsidies have to take care of their land.
As to the latter, many people have heard that the new legislation would eliminate the direct payments to farm owners, whether or not they grow anything, and that it would be replaced with crop insurance subsidies. Less known is that federal assistance is conditioned upon compliance with conservation plans, a key compromise with environmental groups, including the National Wildlife Federation. The benefit to Maryland farmers is that they already have to meet numerous conservation requirements. The requirement that all farmers wishing crop insurance subsidies will have to be in compliance with certain conservation measures helps to level the playing field. Landowners will still have the option to participate in the crop insurance program if they choose not to make required conservation changes to their land, but they will pay the full, unsubsidized price of the insurance. Hence, a public subsidy is linked to a public good.
One of the big holdups in the legislation was the level of funding for food stamps, formally known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). A key compromise was that the funding was only slightly reduced and USDA will have to ensure that “illegal immigrants, lottery winners, college students, and the dead cannot receive food stamps and that beneficiaries cannot collect payments in multiple states” according to Washington Post reporters Ed O’Keefe and Kimberly Kindy. A benefit in the legislation for both farmers and SNAP recipients is that the new program will allow those eligible for benefits to double their food stamp benefits at farmers markets.
Maryland’s organic farmers may also be pleased with parts of the Bill. The Organic Trade Association announced its enthusiastic support as there is more funding for the National Organic Program. New monies will be used to improve technology, fund research on organic practices, provide financial assistance for small farms to afford organic certification, etc.
Another key element for many farmers in Maryland is USDA funding for programs that foster local agriculture, such as food hubs and farmers markets. In particular, food hub research and assistance will help farmers reach the secondary markets, such as grocery stores, restaurants, schools, hospitals and universities.
Praising the new legislation, USDA Secretary Vilsack said that “During difficult times, children, working families, seniors and people with disabilities will have access to nutritious food. The potential of new products, treatments and discoveries will be strengthened through new agricultural research. Renewed conservation efforts will protect our fields, forests and waters creating new tourism options. This legislation is important to the entire nation.”
President Obama is expected to sign the Bill on February 7th.