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The 2018 Farm Bill – A Land For Good progress report

August 3, 2018 Editor’s Note:
Farm Bill heads to Congressional Conference Committee; faces a September 30 deadline. 
Farm Bill conference is finally underway, with the Senate taking the final step of naming its conferees on August 1. New England is fortunate to have two members of the conference committee: Sen. Patrick Leahy from Vermont, and Rep. Jim McGovern from Massachusetts. Both have been invaluable advocates for issues important to New England farmers and consumers, including issues on which Land For Good has engaged this year. We will encourage them and other conferees to fight for these priorities in any final bill.

Land For Good has been working hard for the past year to shape the next federal Farm Bill. Alongside national partners such as National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, National Young Farmers Coalition and American Farmland Trust, we have been offering insights and policy suggestions to Members of Congress and committee staff writing the next federal Farm Bill. With the September expiration of the current Farm Bill, Congress has a limited window in which to act.

Farm Bill status. Both House and Senate Agriculture Committees have now reported out their respective versions of a reauthorization. In May, however, the full House of Representatives voted down the bill reported out of the House Agriculture Committee, with 30 Republicans joining every House Democrat in voting no. Democrats opposed a number of provisions in the bill, including its controversial new work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); a number of Republicans sought to force a vote on unrelated immigration legislation. The Speaker of the House plans another vote on the bill this month. Without changes to the bill that will attract Democratic support, it is unclear whether the bill has the votes to pass. The full Senate is likely to take up its bill this month as well. Passage of the Senate bill seems likely given the relatively small policy and funding shifts it proposes, and the strong bipartisan vote the bill garnered in Committee. What happens should the House not pass a bill is unclear. Many think that a one-year extension of current law is likely.

The House bill. From Land For Good’s perch, the bill developed by the House Agriculture Committee has some positive elements. The bill reauthorizes the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP)—the program that enabled our regional Land Access Project Phases I & II — and clarifies that projects focused on farm transfer and succession strategies are within BFRDP’s scope. The bill increases funding for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) from $250 million this past year to $500 million annually, which will increase the number of state and local farmland protection projects funded.

  • New initiatives on farm and farmland transitions. The bill includes two important new initiatives. The first, a Commission on Farm Transitions—Needs for 2050, will help to focus federal attention on tools and strategies needed to facilitate the looming transition of millions of acres of land and other agricultural assets to the next generation of farmers and ranchers. The second, a Farmland Tenure, Transition, and Entry Data Initiative, authorizes additional funding ($10 million over 5 years) for USDA to increase its survey work and statistical and economic analyses around farmland ownership, tenure and transition trends, and well as on barriers to entry, profitability and viability for beginning farmers.
  • Missed opportunities and problematic provisions. There are also some missed opportunities and problematic provisions in the bill, beyond the larger controversial nutrition title changes. In the conservation title, the bill expands ACEP eligibility to parcels that are 100% forested, which is unwarranted. Not only are there other federal programs that can be used for forest land protection, but this is certain to intensify competition for already scarce ACEP-Agricultural Land Easement dollars. The bill also fails to explicitly authorize Buy-Protect-Sell projects within ACEP, which Land For Good would like to see as a way to encourage projects that facilitate farm transfers, especially to first-time farm buyers. And the bill eliminates Regional Equity, a provision that since 2002 has provided a vital threshold of federal conservation funding to New England states, recognizing that our region’s urban-influenced resource challenges are not always reflected in national conservation program priorities. While it does reauthorize the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP), the bill provides it with no additional funding.

The Senate bill. Fortunately the Senate Agriculture Committee draft addresses many of the missed opportunities in the House bill. It retains the focus of ACEP on farmland, with no expansion of forest eligibility. It specifically enables Buy-Protect-Sell projects within ACEP. It retains Regional Equity. Importantly, it provides $50 million in mandatory yearly funding for a new Farming Opportunities Training and Development Program, which combines the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) and the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers and Veteran Farmer and Rancher Program (“2501 Program”), providing each with $25 million annually.

  • Additional support for farm transfer. Like the House bill, the Senate bill also explicitly authorizes BFRDP projects focused on farm transfer and succession strategies; the Senate also adds “farm transition” to the eligible purposes of state mediation grants. ACEP funding is not as robust as in the House bill; the Senate bill provides $400 million in the first three years, followed by $425 million and then $450 million. However,the Senate bill increases funding for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) and creates a new grant component within it that allows projects that promote unique approaches to long-term agricultural land viability, including projects that support the transfer of land to beginning, veteran, and socially disadvantaged farmers. Lastly, the Senate bill adds additional funding for the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) Transition Incentives Program, a program intended to encourage the sale or lease of land that has been enrolled in CRP to a beginning, socially disadvantaged or veteran farmer.
  • Authorizes new research on farmland tenure and ownership. While the Senate bill does not include the Commission on Farm Transitions—Needs for 2050 or a Farmland Tenure, Transition, and Entry Data Initiative, it does mandate two reports. The Report on Land Access, Tenure, and Transition would require the Secretary of Agriculture to identify barriers that hinder beginning farmers and ranchers and historically underserved producers from acquiring or accessing farmland, and to analyze the extent to which current federal programs are improving access and tenure and addressing farmland transition and succession and what additional regulatory, operational, or statutory improvements are needed. The Report on Absent Landowners would require the Secretary to examine the effects absentee landlords have on agriculture, including soil health, land valuation, and the economic stability of rural communities.

Pending full House and Senate debates. As both House and Senate bills move to their respective full chambers for consideration, these provisions and funding levels are not likely to change much. Floor debate in both chambers is likely to focus, in part, on two other issues that affect land tenure and access—Farm Service Agency (FSA) loan limits, and farm program payment limits.

  • FSA loan limits. Both House and Senate bills increase FSA loan limits on guaranteed farm ownership and operating loans significantly (from $1.35 million to $1.75 million). The Senate bill also increases loan limits on direct farm ownership and operating loans. An increase in the FSA direct farm ownership loan limit will be helpful in New England due to our high real estate values. However, higher guaranteed loan limits will likely lead to larger loans for larger operations, potentially squeezing the pool of available credit for beginning farmers and small and mid-sized operations. At the urging of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and others, the Senate Agriculture Committee addressed this in part by imposing reporting requirements on commercial farm lenders to assess whether they are meeting Congressionally-imposed guaranteed loan participation targets for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers. Floor amendments on loan limits–either to increase them further or to impose additional requirements on larger loans—are certainly possible.
  • Farm program payment limits. A perennially contentious issue, eligibility for farm program benefits—and how that impacts the size, structure and ownership of farms and farmland—is again front and center in this Farm Bill debate. The House Agriculture Committee’s decision (opposed by its Democratic members) to generously loosen the definition of “family member” for the purpose of payment eligibility, exempt certain corporations from payment limits, and exempt partnerships and corporations from existing Adjusted Gross Income means-testing, will almost certainly mean larger payments flowing to the largest of farms, encouraging the trend toward farm consolidation.

Whether House leadership will allow a vote on the floor to modify these eligibility changes is unclear, as is whether the bill can gain the support of fiscal conservatives or Democrats without such changes. In the Senate, while the Agriculture Committee lowered the Adjusted Gross Income means test from $900,000 to $700,000 (per individual), Senator Grassley was unable to offer an amendment in committee to further tighten eligibility requirements for farm program payments. He has vowed to do so during full Senate consideration of the bill.

LFG priorities. As House and Senate take up their respective bills, followed (hopefully) by passage and a conference between the two bills, Land For Good will continue to work toward:

  • Increased, “permanent” funding for BFRDP and Section 2501, along with policy tweaks that ensure farm transfer and succession projects are eligible for BFRDP funding (LFG supports the Senate bill’s funding levels of $25 million/year each for BFRDP and the 2501 Program.)
  • Expanding the uses of state mediation grants to include “farm transition” (as included in the Senate bill);
  • Inclusion of the House’s proposed Commission on Farm Transitions—Needs for 2050;
  • Inclusion of a Farmland Tenure, Transition, and Entry Data Initiative that incorporates elements of the House initiative and the Senate reports on land access and absent landowners, along with funding for the initiative;
  • Increased funding for ACEP (LFG supports the House bill’s funding level of $500 million/year), along with—
    • Explicit authority for buy-protect-sell projects (as the Senate provides)
    • No changes to forest land eligibility (as the Senate provides)
  • Authority within RCPP for projects that encourage long-term agricultural land viability and sustainability, including projects that support the transfer of land to beginning, veteran, and socially disadvantaged farmers (as the Senate provides)
  • Continuation of Regional Equity (as included in the Senate bill);
  • Additional funding for the CRP Transition Incentives Program, including funding for outreach, and policy tweaks to expand landowner eligibility (funding as included in the Senate bill;
  • No further increases in FSA guaranteed loan limits, and reporting requirements on commercial lenders; (maintain reporting requirements contained in Senate bill);
  • Tighter farm program payment limitations, and a reduction in the Adjusted Gross Income means test from its current $900,000 (LFG will support efforts on the Senate floor to tighten existing payment limits and AGI means testing).

What you can do. With floor action likely this month in both the House and the Senate, now is an important time to be in touch with your Members of Congress.

Let your Representative and Senators know what provisions you support in their respective Committee bills, and which you do not. (See LFG priorities, above, for suggestions.) Urge them to support floor amendments that tighten farm program payment limits and oppose floor amendments that increase FSA loan limits beyond the increases already included in both House and Senate Committee bills.

Weigh in with your Representative and Senators as well on a possible extension of the current Farm Bill. If Congress does not enact a new bill before September 30th, urge your legislators to pass an extension of the current bill. Importantly, urge them to fight to include funding for “orphan” programs in any extension of the current Farm Bill. Orphan programs are ones that do not have “baseline” funding, and so will cease to operate next year if not explicitly continued and funded. Orphan programs include BFRDP, Value Added Producers Grants, Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program, Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentives Program, Section 2501 Program, National Organic Certification Cost Share Program, and several others.

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