Early this morning—during those vampire hours between bar close and breakfast—members of the Congressional Farm Bill conference committee agreed on a 2008 Farm Bill. While a final price tag and other details need to be finalized before both bodies of Congress pass it and send it on to President Bush, this is a major step in the direction of finally getting U.S. food and farm policy set in place for the next five years. The President has threatened to veto the Farm Bill, charging, among other things, that it gives too much money to too few fat cat landowners. Indeed, many farm and rural organizations, including the Land Stewardship Project, are criticizing Congress for making only minor changes to the failed and unjust commodity crop subsidy system, and taking almost no action at all to stem corporate consolidation of our nation’s farm and food system. But if this highly flawed proposal is killed, that may mean living with the current ag law for the foreseeable future—a piece of policy that’s even worse, believe it or not. That’s reason enough to pass this thing and get it done with. But we shouldn’t accept this legislation just because it’s long overdue (remember when it was called the 2007 Farm Bill?). There are several sound policies contained within this beast that emerged out of the Beltway at dawn. Here are three reasons why the President should sign the bill when it hits his desk:
1. Conservation: The proposed bill contains strengthened working lands conservation provisions in a new and improved Conservation Stewardship Program. It invests almost $5 billion over the next five years in the Conservation Stewardship Program —formerly known as the Conservation Security Program, it gets to keep the same “CSP” acronym—to help farmers maintain and increase conservation on working lands.
CSP supports farmers who practice effective conservation on their farms and ranches. It also provides additional incentives for farmers to initiate new efforts which improve water quality, decrease soil erosion and establish wildlife habitat. Made more user-friendly and simplified, the 2008 CSP could enroll nearly 13 million acres annually. Due to changes in the proposed Farm Bill, many more farmers will be able to access this program on a consistent basis. At a time of high land prices and increased crop acreage in production, the timing for bolstering this working lands program couldn’t be better.
Research here in the Midwest shows that even when it was only meagerly funded, CSP was quite effective at producing environmental benefits on working farms. Just think what a pumped-up CSP could do.
2. Beginning Farmers: The conference committee’s proposal has comprehensive start-up support for beginning farmers and ranchers. One of the most important elements in the bill is the dedication of $75 million over the life of the Farm Bill to the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP). BFRDP, a major priority for LSP during the Farm Bill debate, is a competitive grants program aimed at providing support to community-based organizations and collaborative networks that provide beginning farmer and rancher education, training and mentoring. Community-based beginning farmer initiatives such as LSP’s Farm Beginnings program have proven there are economical and practical ways to get people established on the land.
There are good farming opportunities right now in organics, sustainable livestock and biofuels production, and in the growth of local and regional food systems, for example. Paired with other beginning farmer and rancher credit and conservation incentives, BFRDP is a good step forward in helping new stewardship-minded farmers take advantage of these opportunities.
3. Local Foods: The 2008 Farm Bill proposal offers an opportunity to make modest investments in regional food systems and address barriers farmers and consumers encounter in this growing sector of agriculture. A positive outcome of the conference committee bill is the dedication of $50 million through the Nutrition Title for the Community Food Project Competitive Grants Program. This program supports community efforts geared towards developing increased local procurement of food. Also encouraging is that $15 million is dedicated to the Value Added Producer Grants Program. Although this is considerably less than many farm and rural organizations had hoped for, any movement toward making communities self-sufficient nutrition-wise is a positive step.
Is this Farm Bill proposal as good as it gets? Far from it. But it’s planting season—time to see if the few good seeds contained in the bill can out-sprout all those bad ones.