U.S. agriculture policy is at a bit of a crossroads, with options being considered by lawmakers and regulators that will have long-term economic implications for America’s farmers, ranchers and forestland owners, as well as the rural communities they support.
An attempt to move a five-year farm bill that made its way through the House Agriculture Committee last month on a narrow, strictly partisan vote, failed on the House floor last week, lost on a dispute over immigration and food assistance policy. Still, congressional leaders say they hope to address the issues of contention and bring the measure back later this summer.
Solutions from the Land sees this delay as a renewed opportunity for lawmakers to address the shortcomings in the bill adopted last month and meet their obligation to hone this major agricultural policy measure in a way to better assist and empower a sector that is entering its fifth consecutive year of lagging economic conditions, but which is still expected to meet the demand from this country – and the world – for food, feed, fiber and energy.
U.S. farmers, ranchers and forestland owners must be provided the tools – programs, funding mechanisms, incentives, tax breaks and research, among others – needed to meet the production challenges they are facing due to a changing climate – challenges that will only intensify going forward.
Unfortunately, provisions in the farm bill brought to the House floor last week that could help the agriculture sector meet those challenges fell far short and do little to ensure a stable path through uncertain times.
Given nominal consideration, despite the significance they hold in their capability of bringing U.S. agriculture well into the 21st century, were provisions addressing farm-based energy development, energy efficiency initiatives for rural businesses, and land conservation.
The vote last week has now required House agriculture leaders to address anew the issues raised on the House floor and during somewhat acrimonious partisan debate earlier this year within the committee. We believe lawmakers would do well to use this enforced cooling period to restore the programs and initiatives that provide farmers, ranchers and forestland with the tools needed to meet the challenges awaiting them as we move further into the 21st century.
For example, serious concerns remain over lawmakers dropping the traditional “Energy Title” and folding its programs under the Rural Development title. It would also would strip these critical programs of mandatory funding, a “safety net” that helped them survive in a time of often overly fervent budget oversight.
The Energy Title, which has been included in the farm bill since 2002, has earned the respect it is due from House members, having helped farmers, ranchers, small businesses and rural communities generate thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in economic development through initiatives like the Rural Energy for America Program. REAP has supported more than 15,000 energy-saving and clean energy-producing projects in rural areas across the country since 2012. The Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP), which supports U.S. cellulosic biofuel production; and the Biorefinery, Renewable Chemical and Biobased Product Manufacturing Assistance Program are other Energy Title initiatives that are critical in their contributions to agriculture’s economic health.
The Conservation Title of the new farm bill needs to be reinforced to meet the growing demand among producers who want to participate in initiatives like the Conservation Stewardship Program – voluntary opportunities for agricultural producers to better protect water resources and soil quality.
Properly structured and funded, these programs provide some of the means our government can use to assist – not impede – U.S. producers in delivering climate-smart agriculture solutions. Rather than creating further challenges, policy should encourage the sustainable production needed as we progress into the 21st century; all while enabling farmers to deliver a range of ecosystem services which includes improved soil quality and enhanced wildlife habitat. Policy can help our agricultural operations build resilience against a changing climate and the volatile weather conditions, such as flooding and drought, that come with it. And policy can offer ways for agriculture to facilitate valuable greenhouse gas reductions through land management practices that sequester carbon (no-till and cover crops, for example), as well as the production of biofuels that emit significantly less carbon dioxide than petroleum-based transportation fuels.
Stakeholders are urged to remind their representatives in Washington that 21st-century challenges require 21st-century solutions. Call on them to use this critical time in the review of policies and programs to ensure they meet the needs of tomorrow.