The Farm Bill works its way through Congress: Northwest Farm Bill Action Group Launches Campaign for a Fair Farm Bill

By John Fawcett-Long, NW Farm Bill Action Group Steering Committee Member

The Senate Version – A Mixed Bag

The Farm Bill has been actively under consideration by Congress the last few months.  Congress is under pressure to do something as the current version expires on October 1.  There also have been many calls for Congress to address the dramatic impacts on food production by this year’s drought.

On June 21, the US Senate passed its version of the Farm Bill.  The legislation included some positive measures, eliminating direct payments to commodity farmers (paid inequitably and paid regardless of market conditions) while placing greater emphasis on need-based crop insurance.  The bill included more support for organic farms and increased funding for the Specialty Crop Block Grants, that is, fruit and vegetable production. The bill also doubled funding for Community Food Project grants and included a new local fruit and vegetable program called the Hunger-Free Community Incentive Grants which would offer $100 million over five years to increase purchases by SNAP (food stamp) customers at farmers markets and other healthy food retailers.

Unfortunately, the bill also made significant cuts to the SNAP program ($4.5 billion). The Senate also left unaddressed many amendments, which would have improved the bill from our perspective.  This includes the Udall amendment, which would have restored and expanded the Section 2501 program for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers to $150 million over the five years of the farm bill.  Instead only $25 million was included in the final Senate bill. Senate leadership also did not allow a vote on the Tester amendment, which would have required 5% of the Agricultural Research Funds to be allocated towards research of localized, non-GMO seeds and breeds. Very importantly, the bill did not address the fundamental challenge for many farmers and ranchers, and that being the corporate domination of the food market place.

The House Version – Clearly Not Good

Several weeks later the U.S. House Agriculture Committee passed its version of the Farm Bill and it was ugly.  Here is the Environmental Working Group’s take on that bill indicating that “The farm bill passed by the House Agriculture Committee last night is quite simply the worst piece of food and farm legislation in recent memory. With the U.S government in a deep fiscal crisis, the committee’s farm bill increases unlimited subsidies for the largest and most profitable farm businesses. As millions of families struggle to put food on the table, the bill cuts funding for critical nutrition assistance programs by $16.1 billion. And with water, land and wildlife habitat under unprecedented assault by industrial agriculture, the committee’s bill slashes environmental programs by more than $6 billion while gutting regulation of pesticides, forestry, and genetically modified crops.”

“But, the committee made a bad bill even worse by restricting the ability of states to set standards for food and farm production and by turning back a bipartisan amendment to modestly reform our bloated crop insurance program even though 26 large farming operations each received insurance subsidies of $1 million or more in 2011. The full House should reject this budget-busting food and farm legislation that feeds fewer people, helps fewer farmers, protects fewer consumers, and places more pressure on our land and water.”

A Bad Farm Bill Extension Averted and Disaster Relief Takes Center Stage

Fortunately, early in the week of July 30 the Congress took off the table a proposed one-year Farm Bill extension which would have gutted many worthwhile programs and funded disaster relief paid for by a dramatic reduction in conservation programs.  NWFBAG joined with over 150 other concerned organizations in sending a letter to Congress clearly opposing the proposed extension.  As of this writing and as Congress prepares to leave Washington for its August recess, Congress is contemplating a separate disaster relief bill to address the country-wide drought facing many producers. Activists groups are concerned that this bill in large part will also be paid for by huge cuts in conservation programs.

We agree with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) in that “The best way for Congress to address disaster assistance and help farmers thought this severe drought is to pass a new five-year farm bill reform package. Though they differ widely on reform, both the Senate-passed and the House Committee-passed bill include disaster assistance for farmers and ranchers. Both bills also fund the tools that help farmers prepare for unpredictable and extreme production conditions — the conservation programs that reward farmers for proactive smart farm management. Funding a short-term disaster package by cutting conservation programs would be like cutting off your nose to spite your face — ugly and debilitating. NSAC would vigorously oppose a stand alone disaster package funded through cuts to farm conservation. We are not opposed to a disaster assistance bill provided farm conservation funding is not raided in the process. ”

NWFBAG Launches a Farm Bill Campaign

As both of these farm bills are clearly inadequate, the NW Farm Bill Action Group is launching a campaign to let key Washington state Representatives know that this is not acceptable and this is not even close to representing what we want our food system to look like!

The campaign is focused on five issues. We envision a food system with:

– support for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers

– adequate nutritional safety nets for those who are struggling

– programs that help re-build the infrastructure for local food systems

– encouragement to use organic and sustainable farming practices

– reform subsidies to be equitable, support sustainable production, and prevent producers from being taken advantage of in the marketplace by concentrated agribusiness corporations

This campaign is worth your passion, skills, and commitment for a just and sustainable food system. We need to organize, organize, organize!

To volunteer as an individual or to get your organization involved, email [email protected] or call Amelia at 517-303-3641.

*CAGJ launched NWFBAG in August 2010.

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