On June 5, the Senate passed, for the second time, the 2008 Farm Bill, establishing the direction of agricultural and conservation policy for the next five years. President George W. Bush is expected to veto it, and for a second time, Congress is expected to override the veto. The second trip was necessary because the bill originally sent to Bush was missing 34 pages due to a printing error. The largest portion of funding in the nearly $300 billion bill will go to nutrition programs such as food stamps, with agricultural subsidies totaling nearly $40 billion annually.
The lion’s share of these subsidies will go toward price supports for grain crops such as corn and wheat. Critics of this approach say it encourages overproduction and falsely boosts commodities prices. But beneath these business-as-usual earmarks, some say that the new farm bill represents a sea change in the government’s approach to agriculture and conservation.
“This bill encourages organics, it encourages conservation, it encourages fruit and vegetable production, it encourages healthy diets,” said Dennis Nuxoll, director of government relations for American Farmland Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based group that worked to include protections for small farmers and their lands. “I think there’s been a great advancement in the mentality of what a farm bill should be.”
American Farmland Trust lobbied for reforms to the commodities system based on government-fixed target prices for crops. Though Nuxoll says that effort was only partially successful—the bill creates a new, voluntary system called ACRE, or Average Crop Revenue Election, based on actual revenue and market conditions, but doesn’t require farmers to switch from the commodities-based system—but the bill does include funding for types of agriculture that were not well-represented before, including farmer’s markets, urban agriculture and a variety of value-added programs to help rural agriculture economies.
Organic activists and conservation groups were generally pleased with the bill’s provisions, which will set funding levels for a wide variety of programs related to organic agriculture.
“There are certainly some positive changes in this bill,” said Steve Ela, president of the Santa Cruz, Calif.-based Organic Farming Research Foundation and organic orchardist in Hotchkiss, Colo. “There’s a significant increase in money for organic crop research—about 600 percent over the last farm bill.”
Reaction from the Organic Trade Association was also positive. “We think it’s a great bill,” said Caren Wilcox, executive director of OTA, based in Greenfield, Mass. “We marked out a number of areas we felt were important to organic progress, and we received $100 million in mandatory spending in this bill.”
Specific programs that benefit organic agriculture include cost-share funding, which will reimburse small farmers for about two-thirds of the cost of achieving organic certification. There is also funding for market analysis, so that organic farmers will have access to data analysis and review to help them determine which crops will be most profitable in a given season. But the biggest funding boost is earmarked for organic farming research.
“The $78 million for research is a really wonderful advantage,” Wilcox said. “USDA does more ag research than any organization in the world, and not being at the table was a huge disadvantage for organic [in the past].”
The new bill increases spending on renewable energy and biofuel research by more than $1 billion, increases nutrition spending by $10 billion, and provides funding for a variety of new conservation initiatives as well. For example, the conservation security program, a program to protect watersheds, received $1 billion more than in the previous program, with a greater focus on the environmental benefits of conservation. “The CSP was limited to certain watersheds, but now is a nationwide program, and requires higher levels of environmental stewardship,” Nuxoll said. “The theme here is working-lands conservation, with more focus on the environment. I think this is a significant improvement over the previous bill.”
No bill is perfect, especially one as wide-ranging as the Farm Bill, which allocates hundreds of billions of dollars for programs as diverse as food stamps and wetlands conservation. OTA lobbied to remove a 5 percent premium that organic farmers pay for crop insurance, which the organic industry sees as a disincentive to plant organic; that move failed. And, though organic funding increased dramatically, it still lags behind when compared to organic market share as a total of all food crops.
“While we’re excited about the gains, there is still a lot of work to do, especially with conservation and sustainability issues,” Ela said.
Mitchell Clute is a Fort Collins, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 7/p. 9,12