With Adoption in Sight, New Farm Bill Must Align with 21st Century Challenges and Opportunities

November 20, 2018

House and Senate farm bill conferees are scrambling to put what appear to be the finishing touches on five-year agricultural policy legislation with only a few weeks remaining in the 115th U.S. Congress. The latest reports indicate Hill staff will continue work through Thanksgiving weekend with a proposal possibly ready on Monday.

As the process draws to a close, SfL calls on partners and other stakeholders to impress upon lawmakers the need for a final bill that serves those who work our lands.

The 2014 Farm Bill expired on Sept. 30, and while commodity and nutrition programs continue (crop insurance is authorized permanently under separate legislation), nearly three dozen other farm programs are now adrift pending a new farm bill. Talk of extending the 2014 legislation into next year has been more or less dismissed, and lawmakers have stated their preference for current members to complete a bill before a new Congress is seated.

Among those programs currently left in the void are the various farm energy initiatives that have been a mainstay of the farm bill since 2002. The House version of the farm bill under debate this year diffused what had been a strong effort to create jobs, improve incomes and generate environmental benefits through Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) and related initiatives. Stakeholders should press conferees to restore and build on these programs, which offer an economic boost to an agricultural sector battered over the last five years by low commodity prices and, in recent months, by international trade disputes that have caught farmers in the crossfire.

Stakeholders should reinforce the message to conferees that any effort to weaken the bill’s Conservation Title – and particularly the proposal to kill the Conservations Stewardship Program – must be rejected. Full backing of the conservation provisions in the farm legislation allows producers to better protect water resources and soil quality, while earning payments for cover crops, resource-conserving crop rotations, and management-intensive rotational grazing.

Effective energy and conservation provisions in the next farm bill serve both short- and long-term objectives. USDA’s disclosure that net farm income is expected to drop this year some 13 percent below that recorded last year is only the latest reminder that Congress has to put together a farm ill that can quickly turn around a U.S. agriculture sector that has suffered immensely over the past five years.

USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) projects that net farm income is expected to reach only $65.7 billion this year, down $9.8 billion from the $75.5 billion earned last year. The 2018 number is more than the $61.6 billion low received in 2016, but it continues the downward slide in net farm income since the $123.8 billion earned in 2013 – a 53 percent decrease. It is imperative to put forward a measure to reverse that trend as quickly as possible.

For the longer term, the farm bill must address the changes in climate that experts say have largely caused devastating wildfires in California and elsewhere in the west, as well as massive flooding in the southeastern United States. These changes are placing additional pressures on productivity, net farm income, and soil and water resources.

In these late stages of farm bill negotiations, stakeholders must continue to impress upon conferees that in addition to a full-strength conservation title, the farm bill must include provisions to maximize solutions available from the land: solutions which take U.S. agriculture and forestry into the 21st century and meet the growing challenges from a changing climate. The five-year legislation must set the tone for the decades ahead by giving farmers, ranchers and forestland owners the tools – programs, funding mechanisms, incentives, tax breaks and research, among others – needed to meet challenges that have only intensified over time.

The pending farm bill offers Congress a significant opportunity to implement forward-thinking policies and programs that, if properly structured and funded, can provide U.S. producers the maximum ability to deliver the climate-smart agriculture solutions advocated by Solutions from the Land and others. Lawmakers must take the message that stakeholders have been delivering and adopt a strong farm bill that restores some certainty in their operations and prepares the sector for the decades ahead.

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