Senate Agriculture Committee’s Draft Farm Bill is a Hopeful Step RAFI Continues to Advocate for Changes During Markup
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PITTSBORO, N.C., June 11, 2018—The Senate Agriculture Committee released a draft of a new farm bill, The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018. Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) feels the Senate’s version of the bill is a hopeful step in the right direction as it funds several programs farmers depend on. However, further development of the bill is needed as it fails to address other critical issues.
“We are pleased to see that the bipartisan process in the Senate has resulted in a bill that includes some critical programs for farmers and rural communities, including full support for SNAP and essential nutrition programs and certification cost-share for organic production. At the same time, we’re concerned that many critical issues, like measures to address fairness in competition in the livestock markets, are completely missing from this bill” said Sally Lee, Associate Director at RAFI.
RAFI reviewed key titles in the draft bill and provided the following comments.
The Senate draft bill is a significant improvement on the House version, maintaining overall conservation funding and making some needed improvements to several programs, including increased incentives for the use of cover crops in the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). However, it cuts funding to both the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the CSP to pay for new initiatives and reduces the number of target acres for enrollment in CSP.
The draft bill includes integrating the paperwork for different conservation programs, especially increased coordination between EQIP and CSP. However, it does not go far enough to ensure that there is automatic graduation between the two when farmers meet the production practice threshold.
Some of the most promising improvements in incentivizing conservation practices are addressed in the Crop Insurance title rather than within the Conservation title. NRCS and crop insurance good agricultural practices are aligned and new initiatives will aggregate data to quantify the risk mitigation benefits of conservation.
SNAP & Nutrition
RAFI is pleased to see a draft bill that supports existing nutrition programs and creates new programs intended to strengthen local food systems at the farmer, market and consumer levels. In contrast to the disappointing House bill, this bill contains no cuts to SNAP, the anti-hunger, poverty-reduction program critical to millions of Americans struggling to make ends meet.
RAFI applauds the expansion of the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) Program, which provides financial incentives to SNAP shoppers for buying fresh fruits and vegetables. Another exciting initiative in this bill is the Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP). This program consolidates several existing programs, including the Value-Added Producer Grants and Local Food and Farmers Market Promotion Program, to collectively support agriculture business development and market access. LAMP also includes a new food safety cost-share program to help farmers upgrade equipment to comply with food safety standards. Under this bill, both FINI and LAMP would receive permanent baseline funding.
A positive addition to the Senate draft bill is a provision allowing farmers markets to use the same EBT Point of Sale (POS) device at multiple sales locations. Currently, SNAP retailers are required to use a separate EBT machine at each market location, which poses a significant financial barrier for farmers markets with multiple locations. This provision is a significant step forward in expanding access to fresh, local fruits and vegetables for SNAP recipients.
The Senate draft bill made several significant credit changes, including increasing the budget authorization of all USDA loan programs. Many of the key provisions of the Credit title will be addressed in amendments during the Senate markup process on June 13th. RAFI is looking to the amendment process to address reporting on service to beginning and socially-disadvantaged farmers by banks receiving USDA loan guarantees, reasonable limits on overall borrowing from USDA loan programs, restrictions on the use of production contracts that do not specify production volumes as collateral on USDA loans, and accountability for preferred lenders in the guaranteed loan program. Information on amendments will be available today. Stay tuned!
The Senate draft bill includes several important provisions that RAFI has advocated for in a bipartisan coalition. These will increase the recognition of the risk reduction benefits of conservation and other sustainable agriculture practices in crop insurance guidelines, pricing and new policy development. The draft bill includes common sense initiatives to align crop insurance good agricultural practices with conservation practices encouraged by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. It also creates an initiative to integrate existing USDA data sets to allow analysis of a wide range of risk-mitigating production practices like the use of cover crops and a pilot to provide discounts in policy premiums for conservation practices.
The draft bill also expands outreach to specialty crop producers, instructs RMA to develop crop insurance policies specifically for products to be sold in direct markets, and provides for incentives for the marketing of Whole Farm Revenue crop insurance policies. These are all positive steps in making sure that crop insurance, as the primary form of assistance for production risk in natural disasters, serves all crops and markets rather than picking winners and losers.
RAFI research priorities of strengthening the National Genetic Resources Advisory Council with special focus on public cultivar development as well as much needed attention to minor crops needs are very welcomed in this bill. It also includes long overdue language directing Strategic Assessment Report on the status and needs of our National Germplasm Collection. The restoration of support for the National Pollinator Health Task Force and strengthening of supports and incentives for pollinators and their habitat are encouraging as well. The one outstanding omission is in regards to specific research priorities for public cultivar development. This remains a major blow to food security, especially in light of recent seed industry consolidations. RAFI strongly urges this omission to be restored during the amendment process.
This bill includes many much-needed improvements over the currently stalled House version. Organic Research and Education Initiative (OREI) funding ramps up to $50M and the Organic Certification Cost Share Program (OCCSP) is fully funded and restored. Organic data collection is continued and gives, similar to the House version, the National Organic Program (NOP) additional authority and funding to strengthen their oversight of organic imports. None of the House language that attempts to muddle the role of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is included in this version. However, one proposed Senate change to the NOSB voting rule seems redundant and unnecessary. RAFI continues to believe that the statutory authority and structure of the NOSB as laid out by the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) is a delicate and appropriate balance. Any statutory changes to the NOSB are unnecessary and dangerous.
Livestock & Competition Reforms
The Senate draft bill completely fails to address much needed reforms that would protect farmers from retaliation, ensure fair pricing or make any meaningful progress toward restoring fair competition back to US agriculture, which is the basis for restoring US rural prosperity.
On June 13th, the Senate Agriculture Committee will markup the bill, considering a series of amendments and taking a final vote. If your Senator is a member of the Ag Committee, it is critical to let them know what you care about before June 13th. Once passed by the Committee, that bill will then move to the Senate floor for consideration and a full vote, which we expect around June 20th. At that point, there will be a series of votes on Floor amendments before final passage of the bill. As we see what amendments are being offered between June 13th and June 20th, everyone can contact their Senators about specific amendments or the overall bill. Once the Senate votes, the bill is done so it is very important to call your Senator before the vote.
Now is the time to reach out to Senators with your concerns or messages of support. Visit www.rafiusa.org/farmbill-getinvolved for information about contacting your representatives.
About the Rural Advancement Foundation International
The Rural Advancement Foundation International mission is to cultivate markets, policies and communities that sustain thriving, socially just, and environmentally sound family farms. RAFI works nationally and internationally, focusing on North Carolina and the southeastern United States. RAFI is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in Pittsboro, North Carolina and incorporated in 1990.
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