Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Farm Bill moves forward: What does it mean?

aliciaIt’s quite a time to be here in our nation’s capital! Sure, President Obama just delivered the State of the Union, but for our country’s family farmers the real news is the Farm Bill.

Right in the middle of meetings with our close partners at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and National Family Farm Coalition, the Congressional “conferees” for the Farm Bill released the report on a final version of the bill, which has now been passed by the House in a 251-166 vote. Our dedicated allies, already exhausted from organizing their winter meetings spent hours poring over the pages of the report to give us the bottom line. So here’s what we know:

There is a lot of good in this bill—dozens of essential, innovative programs that have waited on the sidelines for years will at long last receive renewed funding. These programs invest in the next generation of farmers, grow local and regional food systems, support organic agriculture, and deepen economic opportunity in rural communities. Disaster and credit programs are restored in a time of increased natural disasters and volatile weather patterns. And essential measures to build real justice into our food system were protected, like the long-fought-over GIPSA rule to protect family farmers and ranchers from corporate abuse and Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) to offer real transparency and choice to eaters.

That said, there are critical failures and some huge disappointments too. For the first time ever, both the House and Senate had agreed to set limitations on the commodity payments and subsidies to crop insurance that the largest farms could receive. It signified a new shift among lawmakers to truly level the playing field. But inexplicably, these limits were cut from the bill that came out of the conference committee—a move that benefits the wealthiest farms on the taxpayers’ dime. At the same time, the bill cuts billions of dollars from the suite of conservation programs that are critical to helping farmers address weather-related challenges and protect natural resources in the face of climate change. On the eater side of the Farm Bill’s agenda, it substantially reduces benefits SNAP (food stamp) participants—the most vulnerable of Americans.

That’s a tough pill to swallow in a time of economic challenge and growing income inequality between the richest and poorest in our country. But perhaps the worst part of it is not what happened, but how it happened—through an atrocious, back-door meeting between just four lawmakers, a process that lacked any transparency or accountability. As a result, just four people got to erase historic reforms that were backed by a bipartisan majority in Congress.

Yes, we need our farm policy to move forward. Family farmers and ranchers, and millions of Americans who depend on essential Farm Bill programs, cannot and should not wait any longer. But we deserve more. The bill fails to make much-needed reforms that will level the playing field and build a truly resilient and sustainable farm and food system. And no one should accept the undemocratic last-minute process that produced the bill before us.

The Senate will be voting on the bill as early as this week and it will likely pass. The work that remains for all of us is to keep pushing for the reforms needed in our food and farm system, to make hay over the affronts and to celebrate the victories. Onward, friends! We’ll keep you posted on upcoming opportunities to fight for a fair and resilient food and farm system.

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