cows in field

Farm Bill Clears the House Agriculture Committee

By Annette Higby, New England Farmers Union Policy Director

Added July 16, 2012

In the wee hours of July 12th, the House Agriculture Committee passed its version of the 2012 farm bill by a vote of 35 to 11. Three of the four New England members of the House Agriculture Committee voted against the bill in opposition to its steep cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the new name for Food Stamps.

A number of amendments supported by NEFU were passed during committee markup. The New England members of the Agriculture Committee played a key role in pressing for these amendments and other provisions in the underlying bill that will benefit New England agriculture. On local food, dairy, nutrition, beginning farmers and organic agriculture, our delegation has done a fantastic job.

Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and Congressmen Peter Welch (D-VT), James McGovern (D-MA), and Joe Courtney (D-CT) all serve on the House Agriculture Committee.

An amendment sponsored by Renee Ellmers (R-NC), Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and Christopher Gibson (R-NY) and adopted by voice vote would authorize many small rural schools to use their school lunch commodity funds to make their own local food purchases.

An amendment sponsored by Marcia Fudge (D-OH) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) and adopted by voice vote would authorize the Farm Services Agency to make small loans using a streamlined application process to beginning and veteran farmers. It would also set up a pilot program to fund intermediary lenders serving beginning and local and regional food producers.

An amendment sponsored by Peter Welch (D-VT) and adopted by voice vote would direct USDA’s Risk Management Agency to complete the development of its organic price series. Currently organic farmers pay a higher premium for crop insurance but are paid an organic price after a loss on only four crops. A similar provision is included in the Senate bill.

An Amendment sponsored by Congresswoman Pingree (D-ME) will allow SNAP participants to use their benefits for the purchase of a community supported agriculture share.

The Federal Agricultural Reform and Risk Management Act of 2012 as passed out of the Committee would carve $35 billion dollars from the agriculture budget over 10 years, with $16.5 billion dollars of those cuts coming from the Nutrition Title.

The farm bill passed on the Senate floor would cut overall agriculture spending by $23 billion, including a more modest cut of $4.5 billion to nutrition programs and cuts of about $6 billion from the Conservation Title.

A press release from Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack notes that the steep cuts in nutrition benefits in the House bill “will deny much-needed food assistance to 3 million Americans, mostly low-income working families with children as well as seniors. The proposed cuts will deny 280,000 children in low-income families access to school meals and reduce farm income across rural America.”

In addition to the severe cuts to SNAP, there are a number of other disappointing aspects to the House bill. This bill does not authorize the Hunger Free Communities Incentives grant program to provide federal cost share to organizations providing nutrition incentives to SNAP beneficiaries. The program included in the Senate version and funded with a total of $100 million over the five-year life of the farm bill would prioritize programs that provide access to locally or regionally produced fruits and vegetables in underserved areas.

The House bill repeals the Organic Certification Cost Share Program and allows the funding for the National Center for Appropriate Technology Program commonly called ATTRA expire.

The House bill does not re-authorize the Rural Business Enterprise Grant Program, which has funded food hub and other local food infrastructure throughout New England. It fails to fund the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program at levels that will keep pace with demand. It fails to provide any mandatory funding to programs that help farmers conserve energy and to usher in the next generation of bio-fuels.

A number of provision important to New England Agriculture, however, are now included in both the House and Senate bills.

Both bills bring new resources to the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, a competitive grant program administered primarily by the State Departments of Agriculture to support fruit and vegetable producers. Many states use SCBG to support food safety training for farmers, consumer nutrition and food preparation education, research into seeds and pest and disease control and other ways to enhance the competitiveness of specialty crops. Both bills provide $70 million dollars in mandatory funding a year to the SCBG program.

Both bills also add new resources and a new Local Market Promotion purpose to the Farmer’s Market Promotion Program. The program will include support for direct marketing as well as support for local food business enterprises. Both bills provide mandatory funding of $20 million a year for these programs.

Both bills include a directive to the USDA to develop insurance products appropriate to diversified crop and livestock producers. The House bill, however, limits liability coverage to $1 million dollars. The Senate caps liability at $1.5 million.

Both bills include a regional equity provision to ensure an equitable allocation of conservation program funding for New England.

Both bills include a major overhaul of the dairy safety net. Both create a new and voluntary Dairy Margin Insurance Program that provides subsidized premium coverage on the first 4 million pounds of milk. An amendment to strip the program of a supply management and market stabilization program offered during House Committee markup was defeated by a vote of 17 to 29. Additional attempts to strip this provision from the bill are expected when and if the measure reaches the House floor for a vote.

House leadership has not yet scheduled floor time for consideration of the farm bill and legislative days available before the Congress breaks for August recess are running short. The 2008 farm bill expires on September 30, 2012 and may need to be extended. And the House leadership appears to be looking for a way to by pass a contentious and partisan vote on the House floor. At this point, the path to passage is unclear.