In a surprising development, on May 18th, the House of Representatives voted down the Farm Bill, 198-213. This is only the second time that a farm bill has been voted down on the House floor since the bill was first adopted in the 1930s. This unusual course of events is due partly―although not entirely―to the unusually partisan nature of this year’s House version of the Farm Bill. The Farm Bill has traditionally been bipartisan in its development, but this year, the Republican majority on the Agriculture Committee developed a draft Farm Bill without reaching any compromises with their fellow committee members from the Democratic party.
FOOD STAMPS CONTENTION
The single biggest issue in contention is SNAP, commonly referred to as food stamps. The House Agriculture Committee’s version of the bill included provisions that require able-bodied adults without children under the age of six to prove that they are working or participating in a work training program for twenty hours each week in order to qualify for assistance, with only one month allowed between losing a job and sanctions. The first strike would mean losing benefits for a year; additional strikes mean even longer benefit losses.
Work requirements are already part of the SNAP program, but the new proposal would eliminate exemptions for people with young children (over the age of six, but still too young to be left at home alone), and it relies heavily on training programs that are not yet in place in many areas of the country. The last farm bill funded ten pilot projects for training programs, to identify best practices as well as to identify and address funding and implementation challenges. The results of the pilot projects aren’t done yet, so many people have raised concerns that it’s not clear how to implement these programs in a feasible manner. In addition, by changing to a per-week requirement (as opposed to the per-month work requirement under the current program), the new requirements could disqualify many part-time workers, from waitresses to seasonal farm labor, who don’t have control over their hours.
The press coverage focused on the SNAP debates, but there are other very significant issues with the House’s version of the Farm Bill, ranging from eliminating conservation programs to the gutting of local control over agriculture and food.
For decades, the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) has provided funds to help farmers who choose to implement practices on their farm that promote long-term sustainability. This funding has enabled farmers to help promote healthy soil, water, air and wildlife habitats that benefit everyone―and, at the same time, improve the profitability of their operations. CSP funds have been used by livestock producers to build cross-fencing, install water lines and take other measures to improve their grazing operations, among many other projects.
Another program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) has also benefited many farmers in implementing stewardship practices. Unfortunately, it has also been used to provide government subsidies to the largest and most environmentally damaging operations, particularly confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Contrary to the original intent of EQIP, these factory farms have been able to use our tax dollars to build “manure management systems,” subsidizing their harmful production practices.
The House Farm Bill would eliminate CSP and replace it with vague “stewardship contracts” inside the EQIP. But these “stewardship contracts” retain very little of the important core elements of the CSP, such as comprehensive whole farm conservation approaches and the eligibility requirement to reach certain environmental stewardship levels before enrolling. The bill also allows “stewardship contracts” for use by CAFOs. At the same time, the bill cuts total conservation funding by nearly one billion dollars. Bottom line: less funding overall for conservation, no funding at all for many important projects and the funding that is provided will more often go to factory farms.
LOCAL CONTROL OF AGRICULTURE AND FOOD
Representative King (R-IA) has been trying for several years to strip local control of food and agriculture. While his provision was blocked in the last Farm Bill, this time it made it into the House’s version of the Farm Bill. The provision would prohibit any state or local government from adopting any standard or condition on the production or manufacture of any agricultural product that is sold in interstate commerce.
The bill mandates a one-size-fits-all approach that would eliminate laws adopted by local communities to address problems like Dicamba pesticide drift, to set standards for food quality and animal welfare (such as cagefree eggs or crate-free veal), and even laws that simply allow consumers to know whether their purchases support their local farming communities. State and local laws that would be negated include:
• Labeling and sale criteria for maple syrup, farm-raised fish and many more.
• Farm production standards related to the transport of commodities and livestock, farm labor safeguards and agriculture chemical use standards.
• Farmer and rural community protections like bans on importing diseased products (firewood, bee colonies, etc.), fertilizer application standards and fencing requirements.
• Consumer protection such as BPA-free baby food containers, perishable food labeling, and labeling of consumer chemicals known to cause birth defects.
PROGRAMS TO SUPPORT LOCAL FOOD PRODUCTION
Farmers and consumers across the country have taken the farm-to-table movement from an unknown concept to a vibrant, growing movement that generated almost nine billion dollars in revenue in 2015, according to the USDA. This rapid growth is primarily driven by the farmers’ own hard work and by groups like the Weston A. Price Foundation, which have educated consumers on why they should seek out this food―but the connection between farmers and consumers has been helped in many cases with two government programs funded under the last farm bill.
One is the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program, which provides important support for farmers’ markets as well as local food hubs.
The other is the Value-Added Producer Grant Program, which helps farmers increase the size of their businesses and bring in new sources of income. The House bill leaves the programs in place, but removes what is known as mandatory funding―leaving the funding up to Congress each year. In practical terms, this most likely means no funding for these programs for the next five years.
GIVEAWAYS TO LARGE AGRIBUSINESSES
One of the best-known problems with the Farm Bill is its subsidy system for commodity crops. The House version of the Farm Bill amplifies the problem by abolishing a thirty-year-old rule that prevents corporations from receiving unlimited commodity payments. Lucrative loopholes in the bill for the largest, wealthiest agribusiness operations would allow most corporate farms to receive multiple payments, rather than being limited to a single payment under a single payment cap, which is currently the case. And corporate entities would be exempt from the current limitation that no person or legal entity with an adjusted gross income exceeding nine hundred thousand dollars (effectively almost two million dollars for many couples) is eligible for commodity or conservation payments. In other words, mega-farms would not only be able to get subsidies but would be able to get far more than the true family farms.
This wide-ranging list of concerns drew an equally wide-ranging coalition together to oppose the House Farm Bill. Various groups representing conservatives, taxpayer advocates, environmentalists, sustainable agriculture and anti-hunger advocates all urged Representatives to vote “no.”
But before you assume that these substantive problems were why the House voted the Farm Bill down, think again. The leadership still had enough votes to pass the Farm Bill, but for an unrelated debate over immigration. The House Freedom Caucus wanted a vote on a tough immigration plan before a vote on the Farm Bill and would not settle for promises that the immigration bill would get a vote in the summer. The defeat of the Farm Bill was due to the combination of the Democrats, moderate Republicans (who generally voted no because of the SNAP issues) and the Freedom Caucus.
To quote the film, The Princess Bride, though, the bill is only “mostly dead.” The House has until June 22 to reconsider the bill in its current form, and the Speaker has announced that he will bring it up for a vote again by that date. He has committed to bringing the Freedom Caucus’ preferred immigration bill to the floor for a vote in the interim. But that delay gives the broad-based opposition to the House Farm Bill the opportunity to try to change other Republicans to “no” votes, so the ultimate outcome is still far from certain.
In the meantime, the Senate Agriculture Committee chair has made it clear that the Senate will move forward with its own version of the bill in the more traditional, bipartisan fashion. There were reports that the chairman would release his draft of the Farm Bill at the end of May, but that did not happen. It is still expected that the Senate daft will be released before the House takes its vote of reconsideration, however.
Since no new amendments would be proposed on the vote to reconsider, the only question on the House side is a simple “yes” or “no.” There is more potential to have an impact on the Senate side, since their version of the bill is still being shaped.
The best action to take at this time is to call both of your U.S. Senators to urge them not to make the same mistakes as the House. You can find out who represents you by going to www.senate.gov/senators/contact or by calling the Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121. Keep your discussion short and simple. Don’t try to cover everything that is wrong with the bill! Pick the two or three issues that matter most to you, whether that’s conservation, local food programs, or the PRIME Act and other reforms mentioned in the sidebar to this article.
Some readers may raise concerns that the Farm Bill is fundamentally flawed―that, even if all these issues were fixed, it’s still not a good bill. And I agree. The basic structure and programs of the Farm Bill promote large-scale, consolidated agriculture, mono-cropping of commodity crops, feedlots for livestock, and many other problems. But changing these fundamentals will take time. The current Farm Bill is effective until September 30, and if Congress doesn’t agree on a replacement for it, they will simply pass a short-term extension of the last bill. One way or another, the current structure will be perpetuated for the next few years. Our best hope is to keep the bill from getting worse, make what improvements we can (such as by adding the PRIME Act or Checkoff reform), and keep working to build the strength of the local, sustainable food movement so that we have the political muscle to make more fundamental changes in the next round.
LOST OPPORTUNITIES FOR REFORM
The House Farm Bill not only made several bad changes (discussed in the main article), but it also missed the opportunity to make several good changes that had been proposed to help sustainable and independent livestock producers.
THE PRIME ACT
As we have discussed in multiple articles in Wise Traditions, the PRIME Act would help address a critical problem for local meat producers: lack of inspected slaughterhouses. The lack of reasonable access to a slaughterhouse keeps some farmers from selling their meat at all. For many more, the distance they must travel to the slaughterhouse means significantly increased costs, as well as stress on the animal and lost time on the farm―all of which means less supply and higher prices for consumers.
Current federal law prohibits the sale of meat from “custom” slaughterhouses, which are regulated by the states independently of USDA regulations. The PRIME Act would empower states to allow the sale within their state of custom-slaughtered beef, pork, lamb and goat to consumers, restaurants and grocery stores under standards established by each state.
Representative Massie proposed an amendment to add the PRIME Act to the Farm Bill, but the Rules Committee did not allow a vote on it. Since Senator Rand Paul has a Senate version of the bill (S. 1232), we still have another opportunity to advocate for its inclusion in the Farm Bill.
INTERSTATE TRANSPORT OF RAW MILK
Representative Massie also filed a bill that would legalize the interstate shipment of raw milk and raw milk products for human consumption between states in which the sale or distribution is legal, reversing the FDA’s current regulations that prohibit the interstate transport of raw milk for human consumption.
Some form of distribution of raw milk―whether through sales or cow shares―is legal in most of states. But there are still many areas where access to raw milk is severely limited, and consumers would be better able to get this nutritious food if they could buy from a producer in a neighboring state.
The Rules Committee did allow a vote on Representative Massie’s amendment H. Amdt 627 to the Farm Bill, but it was soundly defeated, 331-79. You can see how your Rep voted at clerk.house.gov/evs/2018/roll201.xml. Although Senator Rand Paul has also introduced a Senate version of the bill, it is unlikely that the Senate leadership would allow a vote on it after such a lopsided vote in the House.
Under federal law, farmers of certain commodities (including pork, eggs, beef and milk) are required to pay a portion of their sales into Checkoff funds. These mandatory fees are intended to be used to research and promote demand for those products. Campaigns such as “Got Milk?” and “Pork, the other white meat” are paid for by these taxes on farmers. Checkoff programs collect tens of millions of dollars from America’s farmers and ranchers every year.
Nothing in the Checkoffs promotes local, organic or sustainable production. To the contrary, the basic message is that all the foods are interchangeable commodities; conventional CAFO beef, imported beef and the grass-fed beef from the farmer in your town are all rolled into “Beef, it’s what for dinner.” Even worse, the dairy checkoff has used its funds―some of which are paid by raw milk farmers―to do public ad campaigns and “educational programs” for dietitians who actively oppose raw milk access.
Moreover, these funds often wind up in the pockets of industrialized agriculture trade organizations. While they can’t use the money directly for lobbying, the funding helps them grow by underwriting their overhead, travel costs, etc.―and then they are free to use their other funds to lobby against the interests of family farmers, such as by opposing country-of-origin (COO) labeling.
Two bills were filed in the House and Senate to reform the Checkoff program. The best option would be to make the Checkoffs voluntary (S.740/ HR 1752). The next best option is to reform the programs to rein in conflicts of interest and stop anti-competitive activities that harm other commodities and consumers (S 741/ HR 1753). The latter bill was introduced as an amendment on the House floor but withdrawn before the vote was taken. There is a good probability that one or both of these bills will be proposed as an amendment to the Senate version of the Farm Bill, and with enough support from the grassroots, they have a realistic chance of success.
Check out the main article for more information on how to take action to support these reforms. Your voice matters!
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2018.