Rep. Annie Kuster witnessed the difficult birth of a farm bill. The New Hampshire Democrat serves on the House Agriculture Committee, the first time in 70 years a Granite State representative has done so. She talked about the bill at New Hampshire's Northeast Organic Farming Association winter conference.
"The fact that Democrats and Republicans aren't 100 percent happy means it is a true compromise," she said. President Barack Obama signed the bill into law on February 7, 2014. Kuster and her colleagues in both the House and Senate worked to make sure the priorities of New England producers were reflected in the final product.
Indeed, the 2014 farm bill is not perfect, but it provides New England's producers with significant opportunities. The bill funds support for specialty crops and initiatives to help beginning producers and organic farmers, and it invests in the local and regional food system, improves crop insurance to address the needs of diversified farms, and enhances farmland conservation.
While the farm bill is sometimes controversial, most New England producers agree that it has value. For example, it wasn't until 2008 that the farm bill included a title for specialty crops, which represent 50 percent of the market value of all New England farm sales. The National Resources Inventory, released by the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, showed that land growing fruits, nuts and flowers increased from 124,800 acres in 2007 to 273,800 in 2010 - that's a 119 percent increase. These results show that policy decisions in Washington, D.C., do have an impact on farms, orchards and ranches.
The New England Farmers Union (NEFU) is the voice of New England's producers in Washington, D.C. NEFU was instrumental in the increased support for specialty crop producers in the 2008 farm bill. Over the past several years, we have been working on behalf of our producer-members to ensure that the next farm bill is even better for our region's family farmers.
"The farm bill is so important to our region," said Sean Buchanan, business development manager for Black River Produce, a distributor of fresh fruits, vegetables and local meats to restaurants, stores, farmers' markets and institutions throughout New England.
Buchanan stressed the importance of the bill's support for Northeast dairy farms. "Our communities rely on the farm bill to keep dairy production viable," he said. "Dairy production intertwines with all other types of agriculture in the Northeast." Buchanan's emphasis on the dairy sector reflects the integrated nature of New England agriculture and illustrates how the farm bill impacts family agriculture here.
Most farmers have followed the farm bill's uncertain journey over the last two years. While that uncertainty persisted, investments in the burgeoning local food system dried up. Black River has recently opened a meat processing facility and experienced firsthand the challenges of a tepid investment climate.
"When the farm bill is in limbo, things are uncertain, and we see less investment in infrastructure, growth and efficiency. Without a farm bill, producers and investors alike struggled to speculate on the future," Buchanan said.
Throughout the farm bill debates, NEFU ensured that the region's congressional delegation understood the concerns of its producer-members. While our farmer members are diverse, and often diversified, NEFU works to aggregate their voices to ensure that federal policy meets the needs of our region.
"New England Farmers Union helps give producers a unified voice in Washington. We sell products from over 150 local producers, and NEFU works on behalf of all of them," said Buchanan. "Helping find commonalities among the many and fighting for our values is what NEFU does."
In the fall of 2013, Buchanan joined NEFU for a legislative fly-in. He and 14 other NEFU members were able to tell the delegates exactly what the farm bill means to New England's agricultural community.
"The fly-in helped reassure us that our legislators in New England are promoting the different styles of agriculture and understand the economic impact our farmers have on our communities," Buchanan said.
Our legislators heard our concerns, and as a result the 2014 farm bill is very good for our region. Kuster said she is pleased that the bill includes so many of New England's priorities. "It eliminates direct payments, and that's a big win for all of us," she said.
"It's not a perfect bill, but there's not a lot of perfect stuff coming out of Washington, D.C., these days," said Kuster. "Conservation funding could be higher." There were cuts totaling $8 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. "No child should have to go to school hungry or go to bed hungry," she said.
In addition, even though the farm bill includes a two-tier price protection system (with lower premiums for smaller farmers), it does not include a voluntary dairy supply management provision that would call for program participants to cut production when there's an oversupply of milk.
On the plus side, the 2014 farm bill invests more than $1.2 billion over the next five years in innovative programs for beginning farmers, local food, organic agriculture, rural development and specialty crops, and it connects crop insurance subsidies to conservation compliance. More specifically, it triples funding for the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program; includes $600 million in mandatory research funding to support specialty crops, organic agriculture and beginning farmers; and makes the funding for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (an umbrella program that consolidates several prior conservation programs) permanent.
The bill also directs the USDA to develop and implement a new nationwide whole-farm diversified risk management insurance product to provide revenue insurance for highly diversified farms of all kinds, including specialty crop farms, integrated grain/livestock farms, organic farms, and farms geared to local markets. New England hosts many such producers, and historically they've been excluded from the federal crop insurance system.
NEFU thanks our delegates for ensuring that the 2014 farm bill includes these key provisions. While many delegates could not support the final bill due to the cuts in SNAP, the bill reflects their support of our agricultural community.
Going forward, NEFU will be deeply engaged in the rulemaking process to ensure that the interests of NEFU's members are represented in the farm bill's implementation.
Let your voice be represented in Washington. Join NEFU (http://www.newenglandfarmersunion.org/join) and help support advocacy and education efforts on federal, state and local issues. Now that we have this important piece of legislation in place, we can invest in the sustainable growth and efficiency of our agricultural economy.
Sarah Andrysiak is a communications consultant for the New England Farmers Union.