U.S. Farm Bill Impact Demands a Close Look

Many people think they understand the federal Farm Bill (the latest is officially known as the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2013). Many people would be wrong. It’s a massively complicated, constantly changing piece of legislation that comes up every few years to define a huge and important part of our economy.

As its title suggests, the current bill is far-ranging and not without controversy. Sorting through the current bill can be tedious and confusing, but valuable because of the bill’s broad impact.

The current Farm Bill offers subsidies for farmers and it dictates funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP. It includes provisions for conservation, for example, but it also limits the amount of sugar the U.S. can import and provides subsidies to domestic sugar-crop producers, which some argue artificially inflates the price of sugar here, putting businesses at a competitive disadvantage.

Last year, thanks to “fiscal cliff” negotiations, Congress failed to pass a new Farm Bill, instead extending with minor changes the bill that was passed in 2008. Congress now has until September 30 to pass a new bill.

In April, Ohio’s Senator Sherrod Brown introduced the Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act (LFFJA) for inclusion in the Farm Bill. The act would modify and expand the Farm Bill to support local agriculture, from providing assistance to local farmers to expanding access to locally grown, healthy food.

Brown’s bill would increase annual funding for local food systems from $40 million to $100 million, benefiting both producers and consumers. His bill would expand SNAP to include community-supported agriculture (CSAs). It would also provide $25 million a year to the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program instead of the $20.6 million the program now receives annually.

“Sen. Brown’s bill will boost income and market opportunities for Ohio farmers, secure funding for critically important programs that support family farms, expand new farming opportunities and invest in the local agricultural community,” MacKenzie Bailey, policy program coordinator for the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, said in a written statement.

In addition, Brown’s bill would bring back the Farmers Market Promotion Program, which expired last October. There are now more than 7,000 farmers markets in the U.S., up 150% since 2000, including 266 in Ohio, which places us seventh in the country. Nationally, direct-to-consumer agriculture sales produce $1.2 billion in annual revenues.

“The Farm Bill is more than a food bill, it’s a hunger bill, an energy bill, a conservation bill, a rural development bill. That’s why I worked to include provisions that would overhaul the farm safety net, support rural economic development and ensure access to healthy and affordable food for all Ohioans,” Brown said.

Brown’s bill would make it easier for farmers to get loans and grants. Lenders associated with the Farm Service Agency and Farm Credit System would be required to have systems in place that serve farmers and ranchers who sell to local markets. Those markets include farmers markets, institutions and “mid-tier value chains.” It even encourages outreach to farmers to ensure they know the loans are there. Grants also would be expanded, specifically in under-served communities.

Farmers stand to benefit from his bill in other ways, too. LFFJA would make it easier to insure a farm, for example, and would provide cost-sharing assistance to farmers seeking organic certification.

“Local and regional agriculture is a major driver in the farm economy, yet producers face significant infrastructure, marketing and information barriers,” Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said in a written statement.

“The bill addresses those barriers and makes smart investments that expand economic opportunities for farmers, increase jobs and improve healthy food access in rural and urban America.”

Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-1, Maine) introduced the LFFJA in the House of Representatives. The act has 33 co-sponsors. Reps. Marcy Kaptur (D-9, Ohio) and Marcia Fudge (D-11, Ohio) are two.

LFFJA would be but a furrow in the sprawling field that is the federal Farm Bill, but as legislators continue to modify and prepare to vote on a new Farm Bill, it’s worth keeping tabs on its evolution. Because while the Farm Bill deals with industry and social programs, at its core it’s about something more fundamental: our food.

Want to learn more about the current status of the Farm Bill? Visit Policy.OEFFA.org/farmbill2012.