Like winter farm conferences and the seed catalogs in February's mail, you can count on federal Farm Bill reauthorization to pop up every five to seven years. The current Farm Bill, passed in 2008, expires in September of 2012, and the debate over its replacement is heating up.
The Farm Bill is a sprawling piece of legislation that covers everything from low-income nutrition assistance to federal farm credit to crop insurance. Historically, this region hasn't fared well in terms of the two biggest agriculture expenditures in the Farm Bill - commodity program payments and crop insurance subsidies, which together account for about $147 billion (yep, that's a b) of the 10-year Farm Bill budget baseline. The Northeast share for these programs is roughly 2 percent and 1 percent, respectively.
Still, the Farm Bill is increasingly important to our region. Agricultural research, investments in a strong local and regional food system, a safety net for our small and midsized dairy farmers, farmland conservation, and support for organic and sustainable agriculture, are all authorized, funded and fundamentally shaped by this all-encompassing piece of federal legislation.
A primary driving factor for this Farm Bill will be deficit reduction. House and Senate Agriculture Committee leaders hope to cut upwards of $23 billion from Farm Bill spending in this round. While the Northeast has never been so well represented on the Agriculture Committees (eight members on the House Agriculture Committee and four on the Senate), shifting the historical paradigm and easing regional inequities is likely to be more difficult than ever in this round.
The New England Farmers Union has identified our priorities for this Farm Bill. We'll be fighting hard for continued funding for the programs that serve our region well, and we'll be seeking policy changes to make many programs work even better.
The Milk Income Loss Contract Program (MILC) has provided an effective and essential safety net for our small and midsized dairy farmers. In this Farm Bill, the MILC program may well be lost as part of an overall reform package of dairy pricing, market stabilization and risk management measures proposed by House Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and introduced as the Dairy Security Act of 2011.
NEFU will oppose any measure likely to encourage or coerce the use of forward contracting by dairy processors to prevent further consolidation and vertical integration in the dairy industry. We'll fight for a program that will maintain a safety net for small and midsized dairy farmers and in the context of federal milk marketing order reform, we'll fight for a separate market order for organic milk.
Local and regional food systems
New England's diversified agriculture and fisheries provide many opportunities for regional economic development. Investments in the local and regional food system can open new markets to small and midsized farmers; create new jobs; and increase access to local fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, meat and dairy for consumers.
In this Farm Bill we'll be fighting for equal support of electronic benefit transfer (EBT) technologies for farmers' markets, Community Supported Farms and Fisheries and other direct markets. Our schools should be allowed to use some of their school lunch commodity dollars for the purchase of local and regional foods.
We'll be seeking policy reforms to allow the Farm Services Agency Farm Credit Programs and Farm Credit System banks to better serve local and regional food producers, value-added activities on farms and other investments in food system infrastructure. Mandatory funding for programs like the Value-Added Producer Grant (VAPG) program and the Farmers Market Producer Program should be restored and, in order to keep up with demand, even increased. The VAPG provides grants to conduct feasibility studies or capital investments in new on-farm value-added enterprises. Its entire $15 million funding allocation in the 2008 Farm Bill was used in the first year of the five-year Farm Bill cycle.
Rural Development grants and loans should place a priority on building the processing infrastructure that our livestock and poultry producers are demanding, and the food hub facilities needed to get local and regional foods to market. Our producers need scale-appropriate food safety training.
Many of our priorities for local and regional food system development are included in the Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act of 2011 (LFFJA) introduced by Congresswoman Chellie Pingree of Maine in the House and Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio in the Senate. We strongly support the inclusion of LFFJA in this next Farm Bill.
New England farmers work hard and take great pride in providing a safe and healthy product while contributing to the health of our region through their care of the land. In this Farm Bill, we'll fight to maintain a green payments program that recognizes the ongoing and multiple environmental benefits of sustainable and organic agriculture and that is appropriate to our region and scale of farming. Mandatory funding for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, increasingly important to organic and management-intensive grazing systems, should be maintained, and also for the Federal Farmland Protection Program which funds farmland conservation and farm viability efforts in our region. Continued funding for organic certification cost share, and important reforms to eliminate premium and price discrimination for organic producers in crop insurance programs are also on our agenda.
This chance to affect federal farm policy only comes around every five to seven years, and the outcome of this Farm Bill debate will make a big difference for New England farmers and eaters alike. Be sure to attend the Farm Bill workshop at your favorite winter farm conference. Visit our website (http://newenglandfarmersunion.org and learn more about the Farm Bill. Sign up for our action alerts and join NEFU. By all means, join the conversation.
Annie Cheatham is executive director of New England Farmers Union (www.New EnglandFarmersUnion.org).