Farm Bill gets fast-tracked

Advocates for small farms, rural community development, and sustainable food systems were dismayed to learn last week that prospects for substantially reforming the next Farm Bill may have dimmed.

Reauthorization of the 2012 Farm Bill was not expected until late next year or early 2013, but the House and Senate Agriculture Committees suddenly announced the entire bill would get written by next week at the latest. The bill is now expected to be much smaller than anticipated, and omit proposed funding for conservation, small farms, and local food systems.

Passage of the Farm Bill occurs every five years, usually involving a lengthy process of lobbying and debate. The bill has traditionally been seen as responsive to large agribusiness corporations rather than environmental, public health, animal welfare, and community interests. In recent years, activists for these interests have begun to see the bill as an opportunity for change, calling for more funding for conservation practices, organic farms, farmers markets, and fresher, healthier school food.

The fast-tracked bill isn’t likely to have much input from these interests given the timeline and the fact that it will also be much smaller than expected. The decision comes as part of the deal cut by Congress to have a plan for reducing the deficit by $1.2 trillion before Thanksgiving. Twenty three billion dollars will be cut from the USDA budget.

Traditional farm interests are working to maintain the $18 billion in annual subsidies currently given to the country’s largest commercial farm operations, which produce corn, soy, and other commodities. Subsidies are distributed via direct payments based on acreage and yield, and are seen by opponents as maintaining concentration in agriculture and fostering environmentally unsustainable production methods. The subsidy proposal circulating would alter the structure of the subsidy program but offer the same basic protections and guarantees to big commercial operations. Critics of the proposal also say it will prevent payments from being tracked and the public from knowing which farms receive payments.

What programs are likely to be sacrificed? Experts are speculating that food safety enforcement is on the chopping block, even though consolidation and vertical integration in food processing have led to increased outbreaks of foodborne illness. Land and watershed conservation initiatives are also threatened, such as those that provide incentives for farmers to leave buffer strips to minimize chemical leaching into groundwater and keep erosion-prone land out of production. The “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” effort, a group of programs that connect local farmers with schools and communities, may also be eliminated.

Given the power of the corporate farm and food lobby, getting community-oriented food and farming efforts into the Farm Bill has never been easy.  Those pushing for more progressive, publicly accountable legislation were expecting to have months to build momentum and support for change among taxpayers and public officials. As Congress puts its finishing touches on the bill, activists have stepped up the pressure, calling for the following legislation:

•                A Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act. Among other provisions, this bill would double funding for the Community Food Projects competitive grants program, expand access to local and regional food in school meals, level the playing field for farmers markets and other local food enterprises to serve Ffederal nutrition program participants, and build local and regional food infrastructure.

•                The Community Agriculture Development and Jobs Act, which would create an Office of Community Agriculture, specifically tasked with the responsibility of ensuring that existing USDA programs address the root causes of food deserts and food insecurity.

•                The Expanding Access to Farmers Markets Act, designed to help Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program participants use their benefits to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables by providing wireless EBT technology to farmers markets and other local food enterprises.

Given the short timeline and closed door environment, it’s uncertain how much play these proposals will get amid the corporate agenda.  Many people are concerned about the lack of transparency and public engagement in the process. No details are public yet, although final recommendations are expected later this week. We’ll keep you posted as the bill develops. In the meantime a great analysis of how the lack of regulation in the poultry industry has led to poverty and the gutting of rural communities in Arkansas is here.

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