Despite legislators’ vows to get the Farm Bill through the House in 2017, it’s clear at this point that it’s not going to happen. The new target for the Farm Bill to get to the House floor is January or February of 2018.
The public comments and behind-the-scenes rumors indicate that the House Agriculture Committee is likely to go with a relatively standard “business as usual” approach to the bill. There may be tweaks here and there, but any major changes would most likely only happen if required by budget cuts due to the tax bill.
However, the discussion is already heating up among House members outside of the Agriculture Committee. In November, Representative Earl Blumenauer of Oregon filed H.R. 4425, a one hundred fifty-six page Food and Farm Act that is set out as an alternative Farm Bill, a complete replacement for the current approach. It’s not going to pass in its entirety, but it’s providing an important focal point for discussions.
Much of the discussion about Blumenauer’s bill is focusing on its caps on subsidies, long a contentious issue, and the support for “specialty crops” (the statutory jargon for fruits and vegetables). But some of the lesser noticed provisions would be of greater benefit for the types of farmers that produce the nutrient-dense foods that WAPF recommends. For example, H.R. 4425 would create a special set-aside within the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) for livestock producers who use pasture-based systems, and simultaneously block any EQIP funds for feedlots. It would also create a new loan program to help farmers and ranchers install “conservation structures,” which would include improving permanent pastures. And it would authorize USDA to use Rural Development grants and loans for meat and poultry
Another bill also provides possible amendments for the Farm Bill: H.R. 3941/S. 1947, the Local Food and Regional Market Supply Act, filed by senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Representatives Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), and Sean Maloney (DNY). This narrower, but bipartisan bill, focuses heavily on funding various grant programs to support local foods and organics, such as increasing annual mandatory funding for the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program and an organic certification cost-share. It does include one provision specifically for livestock producers, authorizing Rural Development and Farm Service Agency programs to be used to assist farmers with maintaining and increasing the production, processing, distribution and marketing of value-added, niche or regionally marketed meat and dairy products.
There is an important and valuable debate to be had about government involvement in agriculture, and there are myriad options—from the current approach (which everyone except massive agribusinesses agree is counterproductive), to a modified version that still relies on subsidies and grants but refocuses them on smaller and sustainable approaches, to the 1930s approach of “price supports” that addressed the unique problems of agricultural highs and lows, to taking the federal government out of the picture completely. The latter two options aren’t even under discussion in Congress at this stage however, so whatever their merits, they are not strong paths for activism at this moment.
There are also discrete reforms that could prove important. For example, in the previous issue of Wise Traditions, I discussed the PRIME Act, which would revoke the current federal prohibition on the sale of meat processed at a “custom slaughterhouse” to in-state consumers. The bill would not legalize the sale of such meat, but would leave it to each state to decide whether and how to allow meat processed at custom slaughterhouses to be sold to individuals and businesses within their states. If the bill can gain sufficient support (as evidenced by a strong co-sponsor list), it stands a chance of being added as an amendment to the Farm Bill.
WAPF will be doing email action alerts with more details and specific talking points early in 2018, please watch for them! Your activism truly makes a difference.
In the last issue of Wise Traditions, I wrote about the USDA’s public meetings in the spring and summer of this year. The current Animal Disease Traceability (ADT) program requires some form of official identification when adult cattle (over 18 months) are moved across state lines; the identification can be a traditional low-tech ID like a metal brite tag. This limited, low-tech approach was put it in place after a massive grassroots campaign against the National Animal Identification System (NAIS), which called for electronic ID and tracking of all livestock animals in every state.
When ADT was adopted, USDA indicated that there would be a second phase, in which the requirements for low-tech forms of ID when cattle are moved interstate would be extended to cover younger cattle, those under 18 months of age. That “Phase Two” of ADT was supposedly the topic of these public meetings when they were first announced. But it quickly became clear that USDA and its agribusiness allies had different plans, namely to try to revive significant portions of NAIS.
I attended the meeting in Texas, and worked with people in multiple states to ensure that the voices of a range of livestock owners were heard. At the Texas meetings and others, there was strong pushback against any attempt to mandate electronic ID.
Yet, at an agribusiness conference in late September, when USDA unveiled its “summary” of the meetings, it claimed that there was a general consensus to support moving ahead with electronic ID. Moreover, the USDA document handed out at the September meeting included imposing this new federal requirement intra-state, even if the cattle never cross state lines! While not as broad or all-encompassing as NAIS, this proposal would impose significant costs, burdens and government intrusion on small farmers who are raising cattle for their local communities.
At the agribusiness conference, USDA stated that it would publish its findings and recommendations in the Federal Register in October. But as of December 4, when this article goes to print, it has not done so. Viewed optimistically, this delay might suggest that the agency is reconsidering its position based on the pushback it got at the meeting and afterwards. The more likely explanation is simply that the bureaucracy moves slowly.
USDA also has a track record of publishing bad documents around the holidays—often the day before Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Years. This tendency is shared by many government agencies, presumably because it reduces the chances of any media coverage and makes it more difficult for grassroots groups that oppose the agencies to get the public’s attention. So please watch carefully for action alerts right at the end of the year.
The good news is that, unlike NAIS, we are aware of the issue and organized early in the process. We beat the program back once before, and we can do it again.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2017.