House Farm Bill Moves Out of Committee
On Wednesday, House Republicans moved the first draft farm bill out of the House Agriculture Committee on a party-line vote. H.R. 2, or the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018, will likely be considered by the full House within the next month.
On the whole, H.R. 2 is an ominous cloud that portends a difficult road ahead for many essential farm bill programs. First, however, a few silver linings deserve mention. The draft includes a number of changes recommended in FBLE’s reports. For example, the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentives (FINI) program and education and training for SNAP recipients both receive important funding increases. H.R. 2 includes a few FBLE recommendations on the conservation side, as well, by restoring funding that the 2014 Farm Bill cut from the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, and increasing funding for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program.
Unfortunately, where H.R. 2 makes progress, it pays for those changes with far deeper cuts in other important initiatives. The draft House bill would cut, eliminate or warp many of the crucial programs that FBLE champions. Hobbling these programs threatens the core of what the farm bill is all about—creating opportunity for all farmers, providing a reliable safety net against hunger, and conserving the health of our shared natural resources.
Who Loses the Most?
H.R. 2 expands work requirements on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that would cause about 2 million people to lose benefits. The new work requirements are a cynical ploy to simply cut SNAP by making it harder—through onerous reporting requirements—and even impossible for some families to maintain eligibility. In the process, H.R. 2 creates new administrative burdens and increases expenses for states.
FBLE’s report, Food Access, Nutrition, and Public Health, explains how, although SNAP already includes work requirements, those requirements currently apply only to “able-bodied adults without dependents” (ABAWDs) between the ages of 18 to 49. FBLE recommends eliminating work requirements for ABAWDs altogether. H.R. 2 moves in the opposite direction, expanding work requirements to include people between the ages of 50 to 59, as well as caretakers of children over age six. These SNAP recipients would have to prove each month that they are working or enrolled in job training for 20 hours a week, with harsh sanctions for those who do not or cannot comply. The first “violation” would result in a loss of benefits for 12 months, and each subsequent failure to comply would remove individuals from SNAP for 36 months.
The work requirement solves an imaginary problem. The evidence shows that SNAP does not disincentivize work. 82% of SNAP households with an ABAWD has a person in it who works, and people do not stop working when they are on SNAP.
Instead, expanding work requirements makes an existing problem even worse. It will be impossible for some to remain on SNAP because not everyone will find work or be able to access a training program. States are not required to offer participants an education and training (E&T) program and, in fact, most states do not. Yet the rule applies regardless of whether the SNAP recipient is actively searching for a job or willing to participate in a work or training program but has none available to him or her. This makes it virtually impossible for many of these ABAWDs to qualify for SNAP regardless of their willingness to work.
Although the draft provides $1 billion for employment and training programs, this funding is woefully inadequate. According to the Center for Budget Policies and Priorities (CBPP), $1 billion amounts to only $28 per person per month for a caseload of 3 million SNAP participants. Such a meager amount will not create meaningful employment or training opportunities, and there’s no evidence states could come close to meeting program demand. States, on the other hand, would be staring at yet another new administrative burden.
Beginning, Minority and Women Farmers
H.R. 2 misses an opportunity to diversify the agricultural sector by investing in new farmers, and especially farmers of color and women farmers. FBLE’s report, Diversified Agricultural Economies, illuminates how the farm bill can begin to correct a history of USDA discrimination while addressing the urgent need to get more farmers in the field. In particular, beginning, minority and women farmers need access the retail markets, credit, crop insurance and land.
The 2501 Program helps minority farmers access these resources. Instead of investing more in this outreach and assistance for minority farmers, H.R. 2 would maintain the funding cuts from the 2014 Farm Bill, which provided only $10 million per year even as the program scope grew to include veteran farmers. Additional changes modify the program to prioritize youth training. We fear that this shift threatens the existence of black farm organizations that depend on 2501 funding to carry out their essential work.
At the same time, H.R. 2 would make it harder for beginning and minority farming populations to get the credit they need to buy or run their farm. FBLE recommends that the next farm bill raise the limit on direct farm ownership loans to reflect the meteoric rise in farmland prices. Instead, the draft bill would freeze those loan limits while raising guaranteed operating and ownership loan limits from $700k to $1.75 million. The effect is that more of these scarce loan dollars will flow to the largest operations—especially factory chicken and hog farms—while leaving beginning, minority and small farmers fighting for even fewer scraps.
Growers and Eaters of Local and Organic Foods
Markets allow farmers to make a living and eaters to find nutritious foods. Recent farm bills have made modest but high-impact investments in expanding opportunities for farmers to connect directly with their customers. H.R. 2 would snuff out some of the most important programs that connect farmers to the growing demand for fresh, local and organic food.
For example, FBLE recommends that Congress build on the incredible success of the Farmers’ Market and Local Foods Promotion Programs by increasing mandatory funding from $30 million to $50 million per year, which would elevate the program to a more permanent status that it has earned. Instead, H.R. 2 would cut all mandatory funding, virtually ensuring the program’s demise.
The Organic Certification Cost-Share Program (OCCSP) faces a similar fate. OCCSP reimburses farmers up to $750 to help defray the cost of organic certification, which allows farmers to transition to organic methods in order meet rising demand for organic products. Rather than maintaining the program, or even increasing the cost-share level as FBLE recommends, H.R. 2 kills the program altogether.
Our Waters and Soils
H.R. 2 cuts $5 billion from working lands conservation programs and moves the United States further from its conservation goals at precisely the time when farmers and the public need smarter and more robust investment in our soil and water. FBLE’s Productivity and Risk Management shows how farm bill conservation must continue to evolve across its core programs, including conservation compliance, working lands programs and retirement programs.
FBLE recommends critical updates to the compliance requirements that guarantee minimum conservation standards on farms receiving farm bill subsidies. Instead of making these critical updates to conservation compliance standards, enforcement, and transparency, H.R. 2 goes the opposite direction. The bill would actually weaken existing wetlands protections.
H.R. 2 doesn’t fare much better on voluntary conservation programs. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) makes rental payments to farmers who fallow environmentally sensitive land, and H.R. 2 expands enrollment from 24 to 29 million acres. However, once CRP acres re-enter production, most if not all conservation benefits disappear. Extending the length of some CRP contracts, as H.R. 2 would, only kicks the can a few years down the road. H.R. 2 also misses significant opportunities to invest what would be required to make continuous CRP contracts an attractive option for producers who are willing to meet an elevated conservation standard.
Finally, H.R. 2 eliminates the largest farm bill conservation program, the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). CSP helps farmers cover the cost of adopting new conserving practices on the farm. FBLE recommends increasing funding to CSP, with a particular emphasis on the highest-impact activities, such as resource-conserving crop rotations. Instead, H.R. 2 folds the least effective aspects of CSP into the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and eliminates CSP’s advanced conservation activities altogether.
FBLE’s reports acknowledge that in order for the next farm bill to make significant new investments, it must also find significant savings elsewhere. FBLE’s research shows that reforms to the commodities and crop insurance programs could provide those saving and help all farmers compete on a level playing field. Specifically, FBLE recommends sensible income tests and reasonable limits on the total subsidies that a single farm operation can receive. By finding savings in these programs, Congress would not only save money but curtail its history of bankrolling risky environmental practices that threaten our nation’s soil and water.
Instead, as noted above, H.R.2 finds savings by ravaging the very programs we need to invest in to secure a more sustainable and equitable food system. It robs the most effective anti-hunger, conservation and regional food system programs, and it uses that money to fund more largesse for the richest farms and private crop insurance companies.
The Largest, Wealthiest Operations and Insurance Companies
The next farm bill is an opportunity to support sound risk management principles while reforming a system where the wealthiest 3% of farmers currently receive 40% of subsidies. Instead, H.R. 2 eliminates meaningful subsidy limits for individuals, opens new subsidy limit loopholes for corporate farms, and ends means testing that already allowed couples earning $1.8 million per year to qualify for subsidies.
At the same time, the draft bill maintains the crop insurance industry’s billions of dollars in direct subsidies as well as guaranteeing them a 14% rate of return, at least 5% higher than the “reasonable rate” as calculated by the Government Accountability Office.
Opportunities Remain to Fix What’s Broken
Farmers, eaters and the environment stand to lose if this first draft becomes law. Fortunately, there’s a long road ahead and plenty of opportunities remain to write a farm bill that champions our shared values. The next opportunity to will come on the House floor, when any representative can offer amendments to H.R. 2. The Senate is carrying on its own process and is expected to release a separate draft sometime in May. If each chamber passes a bill, there will be yet another opportunity to make changes in the conference process. Stay tuned for more analysis as the process unfolds.