by Mark Schonbeck

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and other advocacy groups are gearing up to campaign for sustainable and family farmer priorities the 2018 Farm Bill, on which the Agriculture Committees in both houses of Congress have initiated work.  A few promising “marker bills” intended to become part of the new Farm Bill include:

  • The Organic Agriculture Research Act increases USDA extramural grant funding for organic research from $20M to $50M per year.
  • The American Prairie Conservation Act strengthens the “Sodsaver” provision that deters conversion of native prairie to crop production, and makes the provision nationwide.
  • The Local Food and Regional Market Supply Act, aka Local FARMS Act expands market opportunities for farmers and improve access to healthy food for American families.

Read on for the exciting details – and also for announcements of USDA funding available for community food projects and healthy food security initiatives.

Organic Agriculture Research Act

On May 16 of this year, Representatives Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Dan Newhouse (R-WA), and Jimmy Panetta (D-CA) introduced the Organic Agriculture Research Act (H.R. 2436), which dramatically increases mandatory funding for the USDA competitive grant program Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) from its current level of $20 million to $50 million per year.  Fifty million is a “magic” number in that it gives the program “baseline” which effectively makes the OREI a permanent part of all future Farm Bills.

The Organic Agriculture Research Act is a “marker bill” intended not for passage on a stand-alone basis, but intended to become part of the 2018 Farm Bill.  Recently, the bill received a major boost, with the announcement of 21 new co-sponsors in the House of Representatives.  One of the new co-sponsors, Representative David Young (R-IA) supports the bill because organic farmers in Iowa have expressed a need for more practical research-based information in order to meet the soaring demand for organic food and fiber in this country.

Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) has conducted an in-depth analysis of outcomes of OREI-funded research since the program’s inception in 2004.  The analysis revealed a substantial body of research outcomes including practical information and tools that organic producers can implement now to enhance the success and sustainability of their operations.  For more on the value of organic research, see the report Taking Stock, and the series of farmer guides on Soil Health and Organic Farming, available at http://ofrf.org.

For more on the Organic Agriculture Research Act, see the NSAC blog at http://sustainableagriculture.net/blog/organic-ag-research-act-2017/, the recent press release by OFRF at http://ofrf.org/, and the two-page flyer on the act written by OFRF staff.

 

American Prairie Conservation Act

On October 4, Senators John Thune (R-SD), Mike Rounds (R-SD), and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) are introducing the American Prairie Conservation Act, which would extend the “sodsaver” provision within the federal crop insurance program to apply to all of the United States. First implemented under the 2008 Farm Bill “Sodsaver” sharply reduces the crop insurance subsidies that farmers can receive for any crops grown on land that has recently been broken out of native prairie.  However, the current provision applies only to six states in the “prairie pothole” region of the northern Great Plains.

The new bill also closes the so-called “alfalfa loophole,” which, under the current provision allows farmers to avoid the cut in insurance subsidy by rotating newly-opened prairie to a perennial crop (such as alfalfa or grass-legume hay) for four years before converting to corn, soy, and other annual crops.

Not only do our native prairie lands represent a unique natural resource for biodiversity and native wildlife – one that has undergone an alarming decline in extent – but also these prairie lands play a vital role in sequestering carbon for the long term. Breaking native sod for annual crop production – or even alfalfa production – burns up as much as half of the organic matter in these soils in a couple of decades, releasing tons of carbon dioxide per acre into the atmosphere.

While the American Prairie Conservation Act does not prohibit prairie conversion to cropland, it does create a strong dis-incentive to do so, by sharply reducing the amount of federal assistance for crop insurance available for converted acres.  Inclusion of this bill in the 2018 Farm Bill would be a major victory for conservation, soil health, wildlife, native plants, and the climate.  Furthermore, the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the bill could save over $50 million in tax dollars over the next ten years, funds which can help sustain other conservation programs.

It is anticipated that Representatives Kristi Noem (R-SD) and Tim Walz (D-MN) will introduce a similar bill in the House of Representatives in the near future.  This makes the bill both bipartisan and bicameral, giving it a lot of momentum toward enactment as part of the coming Farm Bill.

For more on the American Prairie Conservation Act, see the NSAC blog at http://sustainableagriculture.net/blog/american-prairies-conservation-act/.

 

Local Food and Regional Market Supply Act, or Local FARMS Act

Again on October 4, Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Representatives Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), and Sean Maloney (D-NY), introduced the Local Food and Regional Market Supply Act (the “Local FARMS Act”) to enhance economic development in agricultural communities nationwide through key programs in the 2018 Farm Bill.  Recognizing that local and regional foods have expanded into a “mature” market with some $8.7 billion in sales annually, the authors of the bill seek expand market opportunities for farmers especially with institutional buyers, while at the same time improving low income families’ access to healthful, fresh, local food.

The Local FARMS Act would merge and expand the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program and the Value Added Producer Grants Program into a local and regional food economic development program funded at $80 million annually, continue Organic Certification Cost Share at $11.5 million per year, and establish a new Food Safety Certification Cost Share funded at $20 million annually.  On the food security side, the bill would increase funding for the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program to $50 million a year, pilot a Harvesting Health (produce prescription) program, and facilitate local sourcing for school meal programs.

Once again, the bipartisan launch of this bill, and the fundamentally non-partisan nature of healthy food and rural development issues should give it a good chance to become part of the 2018 Farm Bill.

For more on the Local FARMS Act, see the NSAC blog at http://sustainableagriculture.net/blog/local-farms-act/.

 

Funding Opportunities for Community Food Systems and Food Security

Past and ongoing efforts by NSAC, member organizations, and other advocacy groups to expand USDA support for sustainable agriculture and food systems continues to bear fruit.  Two programs aimed at community food security that can also expand market opportunities for farmers have announced funding availability:

  • On September 12, the USDA announced $8.6 million to fund new Community Food Projects, which emphasize access to healthful foods (including fresh, local and sustainably grown) as well as improving overall food security for low income residents. See NSAC blog at http://sustainableagriculture.net/blog/cfp-funding-announcement-2017/.
  • On September 29, USDA announced $21 million of new funding available through the Food Insecurity Nutrition Initiative (FINI), which specifically aims to increase the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables available through food assistance programs. See NSAC blog at http://sustainableagriculture.net/blog/fini-rfa-announced-2017/.