Three Congressional Representatives, including one from Wisconsin, have introduced a measure to update the conservation title of the farm bill to reflect today’s farming practices and a new set of government priorities.
Reps. Ron Kind (D-WI), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Sam Farr (D-CA) have introduced what they are calling the Balancing Food, Farm, and Environment Act (the Balancing Act), legislation to be part of the upcoming farm bill debates.
"I have been a champion of conservation in the Farm Bill since I first came to Congress, and the Balancing Act represents the comprehensive reform we need," said Kind. "Our bill creates a more effective and fiscally responsible conservation title by targeting limited resources to higher impact projects and the family farmers who need help the most."
American farmers strongly embrace conservation efforts, he said, but the current conservation title "is outdated and no longer addresses America’s most important priorities," he said.
The existing conservation title is also difficult for farmers to navigate and forces a one-size-fits-all policy on a widely varied natural landscape, the lawmakers said.
The Balancing Act would more effectively use taxpayer dollars by streamlining 23 conservation programs into 11, and would encourage local and regional partnerships that promote conservation.
The legislation, co-sponsored by 13 members of Congress from across the country, prioritizes investment for the most pressing conservation issues, including ensuring that wetlands and grasslands are preserved and reducing pesticide use.
The Balancing Act provides supports for organic farming by assisting farmers looking to transition to organics and by allocating funds that support conservation efforts related to organic food production.
That’s important to Kind since his Congressional district includes the largest cooperative of organic producers in the country. "I fully support the measures in the bill that help those producers choosing to transition to organics," he said.
"By incorporating performance-based, rather than practice-based standards, and reducing paperwork and red tape through program consolidation, all family farmers will benefit from this long-needed reform bill."
FARM PROGRAM CAPS
Also getting into the mix of newly introduced proposals that will be part of farm bill negotiations is the Farm Program Integrity Act of 2013. Introduced by Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) on May 9, the bill would limit who is eligible for farm payments and how large those payments could be.
The bill is identical to a Senate bill (S. 281) introduced earlier this year in the Senate by Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Tim Johnson (D-SD). The same measure was adopted by the Senate last year as part of the five-year farm bill.
The measure would place a hard cap on farm program payments and close loopholes to ensure payments go to working farmers.
Due to current program eligibility loopholes, very large farms and absentee investors can currently receive nearly unlimited government checks through farm commodity programs.
"Under current law, the top 10 percent of farm payment recipients collect nearly 70 percent of all payments," said Fortenberry.
His bill, Fortenberry said, seeks to level the playing field for farm families by establishing meaningful payment limitations on large farms and closing loopholes that currently benefit investors who are not actively engaged in farming.
In addition, the savings from reforms established in the legislation would help ensure that the farm payments system is set on a more fiscally-sustainable path, Fortenberry added.
"Adoption of the Farm Program Integrity Act would put an end to widespread abuse in farm commodity programs," said Ferd Hoefner, policy director with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
"In every survey and poll on this issue over the years, a strong majority of farmers in all regions of the country support payment limit reform. The measure has failed to become law due to the power and influence mega-farms wield in Washington.
"Times have changed, however, and fiscal pressures have turned much-needed scrutiny on farm programs. The current consensus is that unlimited taxpayer subsidies are no longer justifiable."
The bill would allow for support payments to working farmers plus one additional manager per farm. The one additional manager provision is a reasonable compromise, Hoefner said, and was forged in the Senate last year.
It addresses the problem of eligibility loopholes – a problem that has plagued farm programs for far too long and that has fueled the consolidation and demise of family farms across the country, he said.
Hoefner is urging the House to support this bill, but isn’t optimistic of its chances in the House Agriculture Committee. The committee is likely to "maintain a commodity entitlement with no effective limits and wide-open loopholes when it writes its five-year farm bill next week," he added.
The coalition hopes the full House will see the matter differently and vote later this summer in support of family farms and fiscal responsibility by adopting Representative Fortenberry’s proposal.
The farm bill draft released by the Senate Agriculture Committee last week did include the provisions of Fortenberry’s bill.