Feb 26 2014
Farm Bill a Mixed Bag, But Mostly Good for Conservation
Photo credit: dgphilli  via Creative Commons
February 26, 2014
Farm Bill a Mixed Bag, But Mostly Good for Conservation

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Food

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A multi-year “food-fight” over a nearly $1 trillion piece of legislation has finally ended, resulting in a bipartisan Farm Bill that is mostly good news for New York’s environment.

The final bill, which cuts $23 billion (or slightly more than 2 percent) from the overall budget, still includes $57 billion for conservation-related programs. While this represents a decrease of about $6 billion from 2008 levels, it is the first time since the original farm bill in 1933 that funding devoted to conservation has exceeded expenditures earmarked for commodity subsidies (crops like corn, soybeans, and wheat).

The final bill still includes $57 billion for conservation-related programs.

Indeed, it’s often overlooked that the Farm Bill is, by far, our nation’s largest investment in the conservation and management of private lands. With 36,000 farms in New York State, and roughly half of the contiguous U.S. under some form of agricultural usage (crop, pasture, range), these programs have incredible reach and the potential to impact a huge swath of New York farmland.

Coming in at 949 pages, the Farm Bill isn’t exactly a quick read. Just in case you haven’t had time to pore over the entire thing, we’ve hand-picked what we think you should know about conservation programs in the Farm Bill—both the good and the not-so-good.

The Good:

If the two-year struggle leading up to the bill’s signing seemed contentious, the reaction to the final version was not any less combative. For the most part, though, conservationists were pleased—enough so that The Nature Conservancy and more than 230 other organizations came together to support its passage. Some of the wins for the environment include:

  • Local Food Systems: The bill invests heavily in the development, growth, and expansion of local and regional foods—good news for New York farms (and those who support them). Programs like the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion, Community Food Projects, and Specialty Crop Block Grants all received steady or increased funding. The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Program, essential to the future of New York’s farming community, received $100 million in funding.
  • Increasing Organics: Also included is significant support for organic agriculture research and a program that helps farmers offset the costs of organic certification, something that is “particularly important to the small-scale farmers in New York State,” said Elizabeth Henderson, co-chair of the Policy Committee for the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA), in conversation with NYER. “That money really enables smaller farms to remain certified organic.”
  • More Maple: Finally, the bill includes a $20 million grant program for research and expansion of maple tapping, thanks to the work of New York Senator Chuck Schumer. New York currently taps less than one percent of the state’s nearly 300 million maple trees, forcing the U.S. to import four times as much maple syrup as it produces.

The Not-So-Good

Of course in a bill this vast there are bound to be problems. For starters, a controversial $8 billion cut to food stamp programs means 300,000 low-income households in New York will have less money for food each month. Other, more conservation-related let-downs include:

  • Reducing the Reserve: In addition to cutting $6 billion out of the conservation budget, the new Farm Bill also cuts the acreage of the Conservation Reserve Program from 32 million to 24 million. This program encourages landowners to take sensitive lands out of production and plant them in grass, and is estimated to save 450 million tons of soil from erosion each year.
  • Dairy Disappointment: Dairy farmers in New York and the Northeast were frustrated to see the Dairy Market Stabilization Program removed from the final bill. The provision was designed to reduce milk production when prices drop, preventing a market glut and pricing free-fall. House Speaker John Boehner called the program “Soviet-style” and blocked its inclusion. Bob Wellington, dairy economist at the milk cooperative Agri-Mark, lamented the loss: “We had a program that was going to save money [and] work better in the marketplace.”
  • Sticky Subsidies: While the bill does put an end to controversial direct payments, it expands crop insurance programs which many believe are not much better. These programs pay farmers up to $100,000 when they experience a crop failure, and generally go to the largest commodity farms. Ferd Hoefner, Policy Director with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), described the move this way: “At a time of fiscal restraint, growing income inequality, and economic distress in rural communities, it is appalling for the new farm bill to continue uncapped, unlimited commodity and crop insurance subsidies for mega-farms.”

What’s Next

The relief that surrounds the passage of the Farm Bill is palpable among conservationists, farmers, and lawmakers alike. And while conservation initiatives seemed to win in 2014, sustainable agriculture groups will stay vigilant with their eyes focused on future Farm Bill debates.

“The process that went on for this is so dysfunctional and so far from actually developing a program for healthy food and agriculture for the whole United States. It makes you want to tear your hair out,” lamented Elizabeth Henderson of NOFA.

“We are pleased that the bill renews support for innovative programs that invest in the next generation of farmers, the growth of local and organic agriculture, and economic opportunity in rural communities,” said Ariane Lotti, Assistant Policy Director with NSAC, in a statement. “We do not endorse the process that has led to completion of this farm bill nor do we think it represents the 21st century policy we need to support a sustainable farm and food system.”

Photo credit: dgphilli  via Creative Commons