(Up and) Down on the Farm Bill

In the end, the farm bill preserved many programs important to Vermont farmers, but at reduced levels of support. Large farmers tended to fare better as well, and Vermont’s farmers are typically small or midsized. It is encouraging that “specialty crop programs” (fruits and vegetables) received consistent support from Democrats and Republicans in both the House and the Senate, and organic agriculture did well. But the bill contained few initiatives to strengthen rural development programs, promote job creation, or develop local and regional food production. As Bill Suhr of Champlain Valley Orchards summed it up, “Farm bills which support Big Ag will produce cheap food. But we should be focusing our farm bill energy on supporting small diversified farms who are taking care of our natural resources and employing local members of their community.”

Renowned nutritionist and food industry critic Marion Nestle says that in order to understand the farm bill, one has to understand its origins and its context in our political system. The first farm bill was a New Deal creation, signed into law in 1933, in the middle of the Great Depression. It was intended to provide financial assistance to farmers and to ensure food security and supply for city dwellers, two very different constituencies. Roosevelt decided to pursue both objectives through one bill, which, according to Nestle, “politicize[d] the whole thing right from the start.”

Every five years since then, everyone from Old MacDonald to the Association of Food Industries would get to duke it out in the legislative arena for a piece of the farm bill pie. The results are typically a far cry from what’s needed to properly conserve working landscapes, ensure a decent living for small and midsize farmers, support local food sheds, or promote a healthy diet.

For this article, we set out to identify the 2014 farm bill’s biggest impacts on Vermonters.

Goodbye, Direct Subsidies; Hello, Crop Insurance

One of the biggest and most welcome changes in the 2014 farm bill was the repeal of direct farm subsidies, those infamous corporate-farm welfare payments that paid farmers regardless of what they produce while costing taxpayers around $5 billion annually. But critics of the farm bill say those savings will be offset by the expansion of the federal crop insurance program. Under the law, farmers pay only 38% of their premiums, with the remaining 62% (about $1.3 billion annually) subsidized by the federal government, which will also underwrite the losses of the 18 private insurance companies providing coverage. In addition, reported the New York Times:

Crop insurers scored a major victory from a provision in the bill that bars the Agriculture Department from renegotiating lesser payments to those companies over the five-year life of the bill. In previous years, the Agriculture Department’s renegotiations with insurance companies have resulted in billions of dollars in savings for the government.

Craig Cox of the Washington-based Environmental Working Group told the Times, “It seems remarkable to me that Congress would pass a law that gives private insurance companies such favorable treatment.”

The expansion of the crop insurance program, which is expected to issue $94 billion in subsidies over the next 10 years, will primarily benefit larger, Midwestern farmers.

Conservation Funds Slashed

The farm bill continues $57 billion in funding over ten years for the Conservation Stewardship and the Agricultural Conservation Easement programs, which are designed to protect the working landscape and improve natural resources and the environment for generations to come. But while that sounds like a lot of money, it is actually a drastic reduction that sets the program back to 2002 levels. Annual acreage enrollment will drop by 21%, and any possibility of adding new acres to the program has been eliminated. Again, these programs’ payment systems are tilted in favor of larger farms, which disadvantages Vermont.

More Money for Fruit – Just Not Local Fruit

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is encouraging more fruit and vegetable consumption through increased purchasing power at point of purchase. Specialty block grants and value-added grants will help smaller, more-diversified producers in Vermont, such as Champlain Valley Farms. The public school system will increase its fruit purchasing too, but because there is no “buy local” mandate, Vermont’s school children will get their apples from the western states.

Countrywide, SNAP recipients will suffer due to $8.6 billion in federal cuts to the program over the next 10 years – which amounts to a monthly $1.8 million reduction in Vermont’s “food purchasing power.” According to the Vermont Digger:

The Farm Bill requires 17 states to come up with additional monies to fund food stamps for people – mostly seniors and the disabled — who are eligible for the Low Income Heating Assistance Program. Only Vermont has said it will consider making up the difference in fiscal year 2015.

A buy-local mandate could have benefited dairy farmers, too. The biggest challenge facing Bob Reese of the Ayers Brook Goat Dairy in Randolph, Vermont, is the rising feed and input costs coupled with the softening of the commodity markets. In his opinion, the new farm bill will not help smaller farms that will need to develop feed efficiency and superior milking animals to ensure their survival. Reese would like to have seen a provision requiring that Vermont farm bill aid recipients purchase Vermont-produced food. The routing of those dollars directly back to the farmers and producers would create huge revenue for Vermonters and, in a virtuous cycle, allow them to hire food stamp recipients who are purchasing their food.

Good News for Milk Producers

It wasn’t all bad news for small Vermont farmers. Senator Leahy, who sits on the Senate’s Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, won one for them in his championship of the Dairy Margin Protection program. The program will support conventional dairy farmers in Vermont by allowing them to purchase subsidized insurance to hedge against losses when their margins drop beyond a certain level. “It will also discourage large dairies from using this program to flood the markets through overproduction of milk, something that wipes out small family farms,” says Leahy. The Dairy Margin Protection program won’t necessarily make dairy farming more profitable, but it will provide a safety net, especially for farmers with herds of up to 200 cows.

Support for Organics Grow, But Still the Underdog

Programs supporting organic farming made some headway in the 2014 farm bill. Funding for fruits, vegetables and organic programs increased by more than 50% since the 2008, to about $3 billion, and fruit and vegetable growers got greater access to crop insurance.

Funds available to help farmers transition to organic farming methods grew to $57.5 million from $22 million.

Statewide, these provisions will be implemented in the reauthorized Organic Certification Cost Share program, which  reimburses farmers a portion of fees for organic certification and provides funds to the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont to provide technical assistance to farmers. The University of Vermont will also receive grants for research on organic practices through the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative. Another program that will benefit many organic dairy farmers in Vermont is the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service Environmental Quality Incentives program, which provides financial assistance for conservation practices that improve soil, water, plant, animal, air, and related resources on agricultural land.

But these are “tiny pieces compared to the major crop subsidies and food nutrition sections,” says John Cleary of  Organic Valley, the nation’s largest cooperative of organic farmers and a leading organic brand.

See You in 2019

Steven Bianucci, Director of Impact at Iroquois Valley Farms, has the right attitude. He told us that the “big victory is knowing the USDA rules of the game for writing whole-system farm plans for the next five years.” With a little luck and a lot of hard work, perhaps the food revolution underway will result in a more even playing field between small and organic farms and industrial agribusinesses.

For more detailed information on the new farm bill and its impact on Vermont farmers, visit Senator Leahy’s web page, “Vermont And The Farm Bill – Top-Line Highlights At-A-Glance.”

We’d like to thank the following people for providing invaluable information for this article: 

John Steven Bianucci, Iroquois Valley Farms
John Cleary, Organic Valley Cooperative
Bryan Petrucci, Farm and Agribusiness Consultant
Bob Reese of Ayers Brook Goat Dairy
Joan Snyder of Frog Hollow, Inc.
Bill Suhr of Champlain Valley Orchards