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Small-scale ag eyeing piece of next Farm Bill pie?
By WHITNEY PIPKIN
COLLEGE PARK, Md. (Feb. 7, 2017) — The Farm Bill controls $1 trillion worth of taxpayer money over a 10-year period, but it’s still anyone’s guess what will make its way into the next version near the end of 2018.
That’s especially true when it comes to the priorities of the region’s small-scale agriculture community, which dedicated more than one session at the Future Harvest Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture annual conference to speculation about the big bill.
“It’s primarily about Congress and regional conflicts more than ideological ones,” Ferd Hoefner, senior strategic advisor at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said during his organization’s intro to the Farm Bill discussion.
He said who’s in Congress, rather than who’s in the White House, has tended to steer the Farm Bill in recent decades, but “with (Donald) Trump, who knows?”
A lion’s share of the Farm Bill’s budget — up to 80 percent — has traditionally funded the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or food stamps.
The remainder is divided into what former President Barack Obama called “a Swiss Army knife” of priorities, with crop insurance, commodity subsidies and conservation programs among them.
Hoefner said his organization advocates in Washington, D.C., for programs that tend to get a tiny slice of that remainder, totaling about $1.5 billion in the most recent Farm Bill.
Those priorities include funding to train beginning farmers and ranchers, to incentivize conservation measures on farms and to help foster local markets for farms.
Much of the Farm Bill is written as a self-perpetuating law, Hoefner said, which means that if the deadline of Sept. 30, 2018 came and went, programs like crop insurance and SNAP would still be funded until a new bill replaced the current one.
The same is not true for many of the specialty programs for which his group advocates. “If they don’t get funded in the next Farm Bill, they go poof; They go away,” he said.
Of note for farmers in the Chesapeake Bay region, Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) was appointed to serve on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee.
Van Hollen is a new member of the senate and the 10th member of the committee where, Hoefner said, “90 percent” of the Farm Bill is essentially decided before it goes to a broader vote.
Ranking member of that committee, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), said in a statement that “Chris has been a champion for the diverse needs of his state, including efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay as part of the Farm Bill” and that she was eager to work with him in the role.
Julie Obudzinski, deputy policy director for NSAC, said many of the priorities for which her office advocates on the Hill benefit all farmers: increasing access to affordable and desirable farmland, teaching new farmers necessary skills and expanding credit options for those who are ready to expand.
The NSAC addressed many of these concerns with its Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act of 2013 and will continue to campaign that funding to tackle them be included in the next Farm Bill.
Specifically, funding would increase the loan limit for farmers looking to purchase land, which is particularly relevant to those working land in and around the Washington, D.C., area where prices are higher.
Other NSAC employees shared about their efforts to expand conservation funding in the Farm Bill or to ensure that conservation practices are more adequately measured.
The organization would like to eventually see federal funding programs prioritize ecologically sensitive areas and measure their impact more specifically by stating, for example, how much nitrogen a practice is keeping out of the Chesapeake Bay, rather than how many acres are in cover crops.
“These steps are important,” said Alyssa Charney, a policy specialist with NSAC, “especially so we can defend these programs and why they’re important to taxpayers.”