Congress finally got the Agricultural Act of 2014 done – more than two years late! Just maybe it happened for fear that President Obama would write a Farm Bill via executive order. That threat may still come, as some critics hope and suggest.
In the last two weeks, I've received hundreds of emails praising Congress and outlining their favorite pieces of "bacon" in the bill – and some panning it. So here's a quick look at some of what might be most tasty to Northeast agriculture.
Crop insurance improvements
“Today, crop insurance is the foundation of this Farm Bill and the farm safety net,” notes Senate Ag Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), one of the law’s architects. Key to the deficit reduction and taxpayer savings was the transition away from direct farmer payments to insurance policies purchased by farmers and serviced by the private sector.
“The farmer gets a bill, not a check with crop insurance…and they don’t get help unless they really need it,” she adds. And crop insurance is more readily available to specialty crop growers via the new Supplemental Coverage Option.
Farm support payments unhooked
While direct payments were done away with, payment limits on the commodity program were expanded from $50,000 to $125,000. That decoupling of farm support programs will minimize the possibility of planting and production distortions that could trigger new World Trade Organization challenges, suggests National Corn Growers Association President Martin Barbre.
Producers can either maintain existing crop acreage base or reallocate their current base to reflect average acres planted to covered commodities in 2009-2012. That could make programs more relevant and more defensible while not tying them to current-year plantings.
Conservation programs consolidated
Some 23 conservation programs were merged into 13, focusing conservation efforts on working lands. Conservation compliance for wetlands and highly erodible land is tied to premium support for crop insurance.
While the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program and Grassland Reserve Program were consolidated into the new Agricultural Lands Easement Program, it's funded by $1 billion, reports Rand Wentworth, president of the Land Trust Alliance. But as he notes, applications for both old programs far exceeded available funding.
The bill includes funding for the Value Added Producer Grant program and the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance program. Funding continues for training and mentoring of beginning farmers and ranchers.
New cost-share programs were established for farmers seeking organic certification. The Food Export Program which helps companies expand to foreign markets was reauthorized.
State and specialty crop incentives
Funding was increased by 55% for the State Block Grant Program, Specialty Crops Research Initiative, a new fruit and vegetable incentive grant program for SNAP recipients, and the pest and disease prevention program. The bill also maintains funding for the Market Access Program and the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, to provide fresh produce snacks in schools.
Dairy Margin Protection
USDA must establish a Margin Protection Program for dairy farmers by Sept. 1. It's to be designed to protect against periods of both low milk prices and high feed costs, and gets a "thumbs up" from National Milk Producers Federation.
But critics say
“We opposed the final Farm Bill that came out of the Conference Committee,” says Traci Bruckner, senior policy associate with the Center for Rural Affairs. “But the President signed the bill, which means he's accepting responsibility of making the Farm Bill work, improving upon it, and closing the farm payment limitation loopholes that Congress punted to the Administration.”
“If [President Obama] is serious about reforming farm programs, closing the “actively engaged” loopholes is the best place to start," adds Bruckner. "Congress put the ball in his court. We urge him to pick it up and take his best shot.”
And Margarette Purvis, president of Food Bank For New York City, says, "The Agricultural Act of 2014 will strip 850,000 households nationwide of an average $90 per month in benefits from SNAP. "It takes more than half its 'savings' off the plates of struggling families."
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