25x’25 Vision: By 2025, America’s farms, forests and ranches will provide 25 percent of the total energy consumed in the United States, while continuing to produce safe, abundant, and affordable food, feed and fiber.

USDA Farm Bill ‘Principles’ Fall Short by Omitting Energy Programs

Last week, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue laid out USDA’s Farm Bill and Legislative Principles for 2018. USDA would like to see Congress address and adopt their list of priorities in 2018 as lawmakers deliberate over the five-year measure to guide farm policy through 2022.

The legislative objectives are broken down under nine categories, each covering USDA’s major program functions – from farm production and conservation, to trade and foreign agricultural affairs, to rural development, for example.

The principles have drawn little reaction from USDA’s wide range of constituency groups, mainly because they call for the same legislative goals as those long sought by everybody from general farm organizations to a wide variety of commodity trade organizations to crop insurers to food safety interests.

Indicative of the universality of the legislative goals is the very first offering: “Provide a farm safety net that helps American farmers weather times of economic stress without distorting markets.”

It’s important to stress – as Perdue did when he announced the list last week – that ultimately Congress will write the 2018 Farm Bill. So, the principles, though widely accepted and supported by most agricultural, forestry and rural constituencies, will likely undergo some changes before the farm legislation is adopted.

That’s an important point, given the omission of any reference in the principles to renewable energy and the farm energy programs that have contributed so much to rural America.

Over the past 20 years, the farm bill has encouraged and supported initiatives that have enabled our farms, ranches and forestlands to make a significant contribution to the nation’s energy strategy. For example, from 2009 through 2016, the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) provided more than 11,100 grants totaling more than $357 million, and offered nearly 1,000 loan guarantees covering more than $625 million to farmers and small business owners for renewable energy projects and energy efficiency upgrades. USDA says that money has, in turn, leveraged some $2 billion in private investment. Considering REAP was originally created in the 2002 Farm Bill, total investment dollars leveraged over the life of the program are much higher.

Yet REAP and other farm bill programs only last year faced budgetary uncertainty, particularly in the House of Representatives, where lawmakers attempted to eviscerate virtually all clean energy programs.

A strong lobbying effort from stakeholders and clean energy allies in the Senate held off the assaults, reminding policy makers in Washington of something they always seem to forget – these programs generate revenues and jobs in parts of rural America that have been in a steady economic decline for at least four years.

The omission of any reference to farm energy programs in Perdue’s legislative principles is not the only indicator that stakeholders and clean energy advocates will have to double their efforts to see that the initiatives are maintained. In a separate development that reflects the harsh political environment in Washington, news outlets there are reporting this week that a draft, 2018-19 budget proposal from the White House calls for cutting DOE renewable energy and energy efficiency spending by staggering 73 percent.

The 25x’25 Alliance recognizes that Congress has the budgetary challenge of trying to do more with less. But the Alliance also recognizes the need to maintain a strong rural economy that supports a diverse energy portfolio. And stakeholders should caution lawmakers that any effort to boost fossil fuels in some short-sighted attempt to delay this nation’s inevitable transition to a clean energy future would sacrifice critical national priorities that would ultimately leave the nation on a sounder economic footing in the future. Farm bill energy programs are among those critical priorities because they strengthen our national security, create jobs, and produce new economic opportunities and investments in rural America.