By Harriet Behar, MOSES
After more than two years of painful and extraordinary legislative maneuvers, a 5-year farm bill was signed into law on Feb. 7, 2014. While the bill does not contain much reform to large commodity payments, there are many wins for the organic and sustainable agriculture community. Your phone calls, letters or emails to Congress made a difference!
The big news is that the national Organic Certification Cost Share Program is funded at more than double what it was in 2008-2012, allowing more producers to apply. The maximum amounts a producer can receive are the same; unfortunately, no retroactive funding will be provided for the 2013 crop year.
Additional policies and programs in support of organic and sustainable farming include:
- Increased funding for competitive organic research grants;
- Increased funding for organic data collection and reporting, such as biweekly organic crops, forage, vegetable, egg and dairy reports;
- Increased funding for the National Organic Program, as well as a one-time infusion of dollars to improve the NOP website, including a “real-time” listing of certified organic operations;
- Exemption for organic producers from conventional “check-off” programs;
- Funding for a variety of programs serving beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers, farmer markets, specialty crops, farm-to-school, value added agricultural production, and renewable energy projects for agricultural producers.
The farm bill also gives direction to the Risk Management Agency to move quickly in providing organic price crop insurance payment options for a greater number of organic crops. It also provides the NOP with additional enforcement tools to protect organic integrity in the marketplace, with safeguards protecting due process for producers.
On the downside, large cuts were made to conservation programs. The Conservation Reserve Program took the largest cut; people with expiring CRP contracts will find it more difficult to renew for another cycle. Ten million fewer acres than last year will be enrolled in the coming year. This is a great loss, as this program took many highly erodible and marginal farm lands out of production, providing wildlife habitat and improved water quality in many regions.
The Conservation Stewardship Program also was cut, with provision for fewer acres to be enrolled in the coming five years. This program has helped farmers who are already good stewards of the land maintain and improve what they are doing. With protection of our soil, water and other natural resources a foundation activity that leads to long-term productivity, these cuts are short-sighted.
SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“food stamps”), was cut by 1%. Although a much smaller cut than originally proposed by the House of Representatives, this will cut the food stamp dollars received by over 70,000 low-income households.
Needed reforms to the commodity crop payment program were not included in the final bill, even though they were included in both the original Senate and House bills that went to the conference committee. Powerful interests pushed for retention of these payments, including those to multiple entities for the same operation, and millionaires who may or may not be farming the land. However, one unnecessary program was eliminated: the direct payment program tied to commodity base acres on the farm.
The final bill included an allowance for the organic sector to propose its own “check-off” program to be administered by the USDA. A proposal must be submitted, then a vote put before all stakeholders with a majority “yes” vote before there would be an organic check-off. Many questions will need to be settled before there could be a vote, such as: what type of research and/or market promotion would the program fund, who would pay into the program, how much would each entity pay, and who would be on the governing board? In the next few years, there will be a lot of discussion on this topic—it will be important for all organic producers to participate and make their voices heard.
In this new bill, crop insurance represents by far the largest agricultural payment segment, taking up 45% of funding. Significant reforms were not made to this program, and taxpayers end up funding more than 60% of the premiums and many of the insurance company fees,
On the positive side, those accepted in this program must show at least a minimum amount of conservation compliance, protecting the most vulnerable and least productive lands from being subsidized by crop insurance. Organic producers no longer must pay a surcharge for crop insurance, and can elect to pay a higher premium in order to insure their crop at organic prices. More “organic price selections” will be provided for crop insurance in 2015. If you are a long-time organic farmer, you will be able to use your historical yields as the base for your crop insurance coverage. Unfortunately, if you only have a few years of growing the crop you want to insure, you will be penalized by only being able to insure your organic crop yield to 30% of the average of conventional yields of that crop in your county.
The Milk Income Loss Contract (MILC) program is no longer in effect, and no dairy supply management policies were put in place. A new insurance product for milk producers may or may not be useful for organic dairy farmers. The new Margin Protection Plan (MPP) insurance provides coverage when the margin between the average national conventional milk price and the average national dairy feed stuffs price is small. Dairy producers can choose how much of their milk production they wish to insure, and premiums paid for the insurance are adjusted to match the margin gap they wish to insure. Projected roll-out of this new program will be no later than September 1, 2014, with more clarification on how farmers could participate forthcoming. Learn more at www.rma.usda.gov/help/faq/lgmdairy.html.
Vegetable, fruit and other specialty crop producers will have access to new whole farm revenue crop insurance. This should help growers who direct market their production at a higher price than commodity prices, as well as those who have unique production activities such as planting successive crops in the same field. Current crop insurance products are difficult for these small and mid-sized operations to access. This new program is supposed to be more user-friendly for those that were previously difficult to insure.
While the bill passed with bipartisan support, it also had many nays from both sides of the aisle. Many Democrats did not support the bill due to the lack of commodity reforms and/or cuts to food stamps. Many Republicans did not like the bill due to its overall high cost, and wished to see a much smaller bill overall. Even with this farm bill in place, there are many implementation and funding issues that will need careful scrutiny over the next five years. Keep informed by visiting these websites: