The new farm bill, the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, lays out policy affecting U.S. farms, ranches, forestlands and the rural communities they support, and was signed into law on Dec. 20. USDA officials said planning efforts to implement the massive legislation were to begin immediately. On Dec. 22, the government shut down.
For the 35 days it took for an agreement to be reached that allowed the government to reopen, no real action was taken on farm bill implementation at USDA. It was a period of inactivity that our nation’s farmers, ranchers and forestland owners could ill afford. And given that the agreement to end the longest shutdown in U.S. history was for three weeks only, there remains the prospect of government again coming to a halt next week.
The economic plight of rural America continues to worsen, and the stability and predictability that this new farm bill can bring is critically needed. Lawmakers and the White House must avoid a second shutdown at all costs.
The recent drag on the rural economy is shown by what USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) predicts will be a $9-billion drop in net farm income in 2018 when compared to the year before. The $66.3 billion farm income recorded in 2018 represents a 12-percent drop from 2017 and reflects a four-year trend of sluggishness that has hampered the economies of small towns and rural counties that rely on local agricultural operations to sustain their financial health.
The 2018 net farm income numbers, which are calculated on an accrual basis, would be worse were it not for an initial, $4.7-billion tranche of payments under a trade aid package announced by USDA last July, as well as $1.6 billion in ad hoc disaster payments.
Net cash income, which is calculated on a cash-flow basis, does not fare much better under USDA ERS projections, which show that number falling in 2018 by 8 percent compared to 2017 – a drop to $93.4 billion.
The U.S. trade dispute with China, which is the foremost reason for the trade-aid package, is among the principle causes cited by economists for the latest drag on the farm economy. However, natural disasters stemming from extreme weather patterns, such as wildfires and flooding, have persistently plagued U.S. farmers and ranchers. And with our climate changing, those episodes are getting worse, wreaking havoc on wide swaths of productive lands and the communities that rely on them.
The $867-billion farm bill and the safety net it provides our farmers and ranchers make it a key element in restoring U.S. agriculture to the level of prosperity it deserves. Furthermore, the conservation, research and ecosystem programs the bill supports provide producers with the tools needed to maximize the resilience-building, adaptation and mitigation solutions they can apply to their working lands to address a changing climate and the heavy costs that come with it.
There is a growing sense of urgency to implement provisions in the farm bill that can be used to take advantage of land-based climate solutions, which in turn keep working landscapes vital, reduce carbon emissions and improve an operation’s bottom line.
For example, a pilot Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) encourages farmers to implement and document the true greenhouse benefits of crop production, while also incentivizing farmers to adopt smart soil management practices that improve soil health to increase drought resiliency, improve nutrient utilization and enhance soil carbon sequestration. The program can offer an economic value that, if realized, will properly credit farmers for their ability to sequester carbon and participate in low carbon fuel markets.
The 2018 Farm Bill continues mandatory funding for a number of important programs that can help diversify rural economies, including $50 million annually for the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), which helps install renewable energy, energy efficiency and energy storage technologies on farms, ranches and in rural businesses. Programs are also available that can grow the number of commercially viable bio-based alternatives to petroleum-based fuels, chemicals, plastics and other products.
For these provisions and others to work on behalf of producers, the farm bill must be implemented as soon as possible. That process is already lengthy – USDA expects to hold hearings or listening sessions for stakeholders throughout the agency’s implementation steps. Another shutdown would pose a critical delay in the deployment of measures that will not only help improve rural America’s economic health, but also give impetus to production practices that address our changing climate, such as those promoted by Solutions from the Land. To make the most of land-based solutions, a prosperous agriculture sector is needed.