2019 Vermont Law Top 10 Environmental Watch List

The Farm Bill’s Uncertain Future

The Farm Bill is ubiquitous in its coverage of farm and food policies and programs in the United States. As omnibus legislation typically renewed every five years, the Farm Bill reauthorization process often becomes highly politicized given its broad scope. Consequently, unresolved negotiations over its content can sometimes lead to the bill’s expiration without a successor, as they did in both 2012 and 2018, leaving many programs and the individuals who rely on them without funding or authority. This lapse should resolve shortly, however, as a conferenced bill—recently passed by both chambers of Congress—now sits awaiting the president’s signature this week.

The Farm Bill’s significance to the environmental community cannot be underestimated. While the United States’ food and agricultural system has seen tremendous growth and productivity, it also significantly impacts the environment both directly and indirectly. Food and agricultural production accounts for 80-90 percent of groundwater usage in the United States and over 40 percent of land is used for agricultural purposes. Additionally, agriculture contributes 9 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions excluding the transportation, electricity, and industrial emissions associated with agriculture. Finally, due to tremendous inefficiencies, nearly 30-40 percent of food produced in the United States becomes waste.

Many associate the Farm Bill with nutrition, as the largest percentage of costs associated with the Farm Bill are allocated to nutrition, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which was hotly debated this cycle. However, the 2018 Farm Bill authorizes $867 billion over 10 years across 11 different titles covering an array of USDA programs with important environmental consequences, including the commodity programs, rural infrastructure and economic development, trade, conservation, energy, horticulture, forestry, and crop insurance. Notably, some suggest the 2018 Farm Bill reflects a new set of standards for conservation that incorporate new technologies and science, focus on soil health and climate resilience, and encourage action at the watershed level.

The Farm Bill authorizes a variety of conservation programs that assist with natural resource management and environmental concerns on working and retired agricultural lands, which was an area of contention during the 2018 negotiations. The proposed House and Senate bills originally differed in their approach to some of these programs. The biggest conflict related to the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP),the nation’s largest conservation program by acreage.The House bill would have repealed the program completely and merged it with the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). The Senate bill, on the other hand, reauthorized CSP, but would have reduced total enrollment from the current 70 million acres of land enrolled in CSP under the 2014 Farm Bill.

The recently passed 2018 Farm Bill retains total conservation title funding and existing conservation programs. It maintains CSP and EQIP as separate programs, while promoting improved coordination between them and making them more flexible at the local level. The goal is to address issues for all types of production systems, with an emphasis on producers located in semi-arid areas where the need for better practices to increase water savings and climate resiliency are great. The final bill increases funding for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) and reauthorizes RCPP as a standalone program, rather than drawing its funding from other conservation title programs as was the case in the 2014 bill.

04_FarmbillEnergy is another important focus of the Farm Bill and another area of conflict between the proposed House and Senate versions of the bill, specifically Title IX. The House bill would have eliminated Title IX and reauthorized its energy-related programs elsewhere in the bill. The proposed Senate bill kept Title IX and expanded programs to include new biogas research incentives and carbon utilization education programs. The Conference Committee opted to keep Title IX, which is more in line with the Senate proposal. Some of the notable outcomes include the expansion of “biobased” energy projects to include “renewable chemicals”; maintaining mandatory funding for the Rural Energy for America program, which provides grants and loans to farmers and rural businesses to make energy efficiency upgrades and invest in renewable energy systems; and the acceleration of biogas research and investment in biogas systems. These highlights are only the tip of the iceberg; Title IX includes many other important energy-related provisions.

In addition to these programs, the Farm Bill contains other programs that collectively go a long way toward supporting better environmetal practices. Many of these are smaller programs that support new farmer training, outreach and assistance to socially disadvantaged farmers, organic research and certification cost-sharing, and the transition of expiring Conservation Reserve Program land to beginning or socially disadvantaged farmers using sustainable practices, among many others. An unfortunate result of the lapse in Farm Bill authority upon expiration of the 2014 bill was that 39 smaller programs were unable to operate because they lack permanent funding. Moreover, some programs that have baseline funding also ceased operation because their authority expired, which suspended program enrollment despite strong farmer interest and available funds.

Fortunately, with the anticipated enactment of the Farm Bill this week, these programs will soon be up and running again. And, if history repeats itself in 2023, another Farm Bill expiration will not impact some of these programs, as they will enjoy permanent baseline funding going forward. The 2018 bill authorizes $50 million in mandatory funding for the Local Agriculture Market Program, which combines existing programs that support farmers markets, local food promotion, and value-added processing, and includes a new public-private partnership program focused on regional food system development. The bill also combines and provides mandatory funding—increasing from $30 million to $50 million—for two farmer outreach and training programs, one focused on beginning and another on socially disadvantaged producers.

Ultimately, the final bill is neither as severe nor as transformational as it could have been. Aside from some of the changes noted above, the 2018 Farm Bill largely maintains the status quo. Nowhere is that more apparent than the commodity and crop insurance titles, which together with the nutrition and conservation titles, comprise the largest portion of total Farm Bill spending. In a blow to supporters on both sides of the aisle, the Conference Committee opted not to include a provision in the Senate bill that would have closed loopholes currently allowing commodity payments to farm managers with minimal actual involvement in the farming operation. In fact, the final bill expands the existing payment limitation beyond members of the farm owner’s immediate family to cousins, nieces, and nephews who may never set foot on the farm. The fact that some members of Congress sought to limit safety-net support by increasing work requirements for SNAP recipients while simultaneously expanding commodity payments for farmers without requiring the same is a prime example of the political gamesmanship that has become such a central aspect of the Farm Bill debate in recent iterations. The impacts these policies have on the structure of agriculture and the environment—the increasing consolidation of farmland, the loss of mid-sized farms, and intensified commodity production—will extend well beyond the five years of this current Farm Bill. While there is much to applaud in the 2018 bill, many of these concerning trends remain.