Monday, June 25, 2012

Wins & Losses on the Farm Bill

Wins & Losses: Breaking down the Food and Farm Bill

(from the Slow Food USA Blog--for original post click here)
Written by Tim Smith, Slow Food USA’s Associate Manager of New Media
Last week, Washington became the food capital of the country as the Senate debated the 2012 Food and Farm Bill, culminating in the passage of the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012 yesterday afternoon. Like most people in the country, your next thought most likely is: what does this mean for me?
Well, it means that we are one step closer to approval of the single biggest piece of legislation that governs what we grow and eat in this country, and how it is distributed. It is a 5-year, $969 billion bill that touches every single person’s life in this country. Every farmer, parent, cook, eater, student, and activist is impacted by the policies the Bill addresses and we only have one chance every five years to influence it. Now that the Senate has passed their version, it is up to the House of Representatives to pass their own version before the bill can officially become law.
Okay, now that we’ve cleared that up, you’re probably wondering: is the Senate Bill a good thing or a bad thing? Well, I guess that depends on what you’re priorities are. Back in March, Slow Food USA sent a letter to the leaders of both the Senate and House Agriculture committees outlining our priorities and asked for a good, clean, and fair Food and Farm Bill. You can read the letter here for more specifics, but we basically boiled it down to three key points:
We asked them to ensure…
  1. a health focused food system, an end to hunger, and access to healthy food;
  2. a level “plowing” field for family farmers & vibrant regional farm and food economies;
  3. good environmental stewardship.
Under these guidelines, in a lengthy bill that involved over 300 amendment requests, there were definitely some victories and certainly some losses. In an attempt to make sense of it all, I’ve broken it down with the top 5 wins that we can take away from the bill and rounding it out with a bottom 3 of losses from the process:
  1. The Senate passed an amendment sponsored by Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) that provides critical funding for rural jobs and new farming opportunities. This means, among other things, that a young person in Wisconsin who wants to start a new farm, but lacks access to the kind of credit that would allow her to do that could now qualify for funding through the Rural Micro-entrepreneur Assistance Program.

  2. The Senate passed an amendment sponsored by Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) that makes sure that farms receiving subsidized crop insurance will be required to follow basic conservation guidelines. This means if a large conventional farm in Ohio receives insurance payments to cover against their losses for the year, they will need to follow the same conservation laws that were previously only applied to farms receiving direct subsidies.

  3. The Senate passed an amendment sponsored by Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) which makes it much easier for organic farmers to gain access to crop insurance. Right now, if an organic farmer in New York wishes to receive crop insurance, he will have to pay a much higher premium than his conventional farming neighbor, but they are both reimbursed at the same rate. This would change that and set the reimbursements to more appropriate levels.

  4. The Senate rejected amendments by Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Jeff Sessions(R-AL) that would have further weakened the already weakened SNAP program. These amendments would have made it harder for states to provide food assistance to their most vulnerable citizens.

  5. The Senate Agriculture committee’s bill puts an end to costly, direct subsidy programs that do nothing to support healthy farming practices. Currently, if you own farm land in New Mexico that qualifies for a direct subsidy, you will receive payments from the government even if you don’t plant a single crop. This bill will end that practice.
  1. The Senate did not consider an amendment sponsored by Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) that would have make it unlawful for a meat packer to own or feed livestock intended for slaughter. The current practice among meat packers is to slaughter their own livestock when prices are too high and buy from farmers when prices are low. This amendment would have created a fair marketplace for family farms raising livestock, not disproportionately favoring large slaughterhouses.

  2. The Senate rejected an amendment by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) that would have re-directed some crop insurance funding to eliminate the cuts to the SNAP program. Without this amendment, an estimated 500,000 households across the country will lose $90 per month in SNAP benefits.

  3. The Senate did not consider an amendment by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) that would have enabled schools to purchase from local and regional producers. This amendment would have allowed school districts to continue participating in the Department fo Defense Fresh Program while making their own fresh produce purchases.

In the end, how do we score the Senate Food and Farm Bill? I think it was best said by Senate Agricutlure Ranking member, Senator Pat Roberts before the official votes were cast, “Is it the best possible bill? No. It is the best bill possible.” Now, on to the House we go.

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