Congress has put its stamp of approval on the five-year, $307 billion Farm Bill, sending it on to President Bush, who is expected to veto the measure. Congress approved the bill with veto proof majorities in both chambers, however, and the actual veto is expected to be little more than a political exercise with override votes in the Senate and the House nothing less than a certainty.
As with most comprehensive legislation that comes out of Washington, there are reasons to cheer about the farm and food policy gaining approval this week, and there are reasons to shake your head. The question is: when is Congress going to find the political courage to take much needed action to implement reforms aimed at answering the needs of our family farmers and consumers, who are demanding good food raised with their health and the health of the environment in mind.
Farm Aid worked with a number of groups that were active in helping to shape the bill, and for many, the final legislation represents a set of wins and a set of losses. The Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has developed a snapshot look at what was gained and what was lost in the Farm Bill fight.
On the plus side, the measure contains a significant nod to beginning, minority and socially disadvantaged farmers who will be eligible for cash grants, low interest loans, and better lending terms. There is also a new program aimed at easing transfer of lands from retiring farmers to those looking to begin.
Conservation programs scored some wins as well with the Conservation Stewardship Program gaining nationwide status and $1.1 billion in increased funding. The changes will bring roughly 115 million acres into the CSP program by 2017. Overall, conservation programs gained $6.5 billion in new funding during the life of the legislation.
Local and regional food systems made some gains with new funds to promote farmers markets and earmarked loan funds to improve, develop or finance local food enterprises in rural communities. For the first time, very small meat processing plants (those that typically serve farmers raising organic, grass fed, and free range livestock) will be allowed to sell across state lines if they meet strong food safety standards. These are the kind of changes that can really go a long way toward encouraging additional growth in these niche areas where family farmers want to grow and consumers are continuing to express interest.
Organic farmers and those looking to transition to organics scored some wins in the bill as well with $22 million over five years to help cover farmer’s transition costs. The Congress also approved a seven-fold increase to $78 million for organic farming research grants.
An effort to direct more federal resources to encouraging farmers, ranchers, farm workers and food systems advocates from communities of color gained approval through the efforts of the Rural Coalition and others.
In the food and nutrition category, by far the largest portion of Farm Bill spending at $209 billion, Congress increased spending for food stamps, ended loss of benefits through inflation, increased benefits for households with high child care costs and dedicated $1 billion to improve child nutrition by expanding the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Snack Program. A really big win came in Congressional support for Community Food Projects, which becomes a permanent program with $5 million in funding each year. The bill also makes it easier for school lunch programs to purchase locally produced foods by allowing them to specify a geographic preference in their purchasing orders. You can learn more about food security and the bill’s impact on underserved communities by checking in with the Community Food Security Coalition.
Ranchers working with the Western Organization of Resource Councils came away disappointed because there was no real market reform for livestock producers. WORC and others have tried for years to persuade Congress to prevent meat packers from owning the livestock they process because there is so much concentration in the industry that fair prices are virtually impossible to achieve. Approval of country of origin labeling, however, will finally give consumers a choice in their grocery store when buying meat, produce and vegetables.
Other family farm organizations are also looking at the final result of the 18-month Congressional Debate of food and farm policy as a missed opportunity. The National Family Farm Coalition and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy point out that Congress failed to accomplish real commodity policy reform. The new Farm Bill will continue subsidizing a few big corporations, grain traders and industrial factory farms, while failing to fully address the needs of small, independent family farmers by providing a mechanism enabling them to receive a fair price in the marketplace rather than through discredited subsidy programs. Failure to create a strategic grain reserve, which would help level the peaks and valleys in grain markets and ease price pressure at the grocery store, also came in for sharp criticism from these groups.
If you want to read more about the Farm Bill, officially known as the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 check in with the Senate Committee on Agriculture Nutrition and Forestry.