2012 Farm Bill Clears House Hurdle

Author: Kate Fitzgerald

In the early hours of July 12, the House Agriculture Committee passed the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act (H.R. 6083 AKA the Farm Bill) on a bipartisan vote of 35-11. The bill cuts total spending by $35 billion over ten years, with $16 billion of the cut coming from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps.  One of the few bright spots in the bill is a provision for an incentive program inviting SNAP participants to purchase more locally-grown fruits and vegetables.

Advocates for sustainable local food systems have an interest in a Farm Bill passing soon because many of the USDA programs that support this work will expire on September 30, the end of both the 2012 fiscal year and the current farm legislation. USDA has made great strides in the last four years: farmers’ markets are growing; new markets that accept SNAP and WIC benefits are being established; food hubs are making it easier for farmers to sell to schools, hospitals and regional grocery chains; hoop houses are being constructed to extend farmers’ seasons in rural communities and on urban city blocks; and beginning farmers are getting the support they need to be successful. (USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food COMPASS is an excellent tool to learn about funding opportunities at USDA and connect with organizations and farmers doing interesting work around the country.)  A new Farm Bill can provide the statutory support for USDA to continue these programs.

The House Ag Committee’s bill contains some good provisions that provide a solid starting point for negotiations with the Senate.

  • SNAP incentives for the purchase of local fruits and vegetables
  • Expansion of the Farmers Market Promotion grant program to include funding for food hubs
  • Better standards for SNAP retailers, authorization for USDA to test better mobile technology for farmers markets and other non-traditional healthy food retailers, and approval for SNAP participants to use benefits in community supported agriculture programs (CSA)
  • Options for schools to purchase food locally for meal programs
  • New loan options for urban and youth farmers
  • Support for beginning and minority farmer programs

In addition to the deep cut to the SNAP program, the rest of the FARRM Act does not reflect the incremental reform included in the Senate’s Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act. The cuts to funding levels for commodity and conservation programs are about the same as in the Senate bill, but they are not accompanied by analogous improvements including linking conservation compliance to crop insurance coverage or reasonable caps on payments to large farms. (Please read the blogs at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition for more detailed analysis of the two bills.)

If Congress were to follow normal order, the next step would be for the bill to move to a vote by the full House of Representatives. But not much seems to be following the normal order in Washington, D.C. this summer, so the path forward for the 2012 Farm Bill is murky. Under normal circumstances, the House leadership would schedule floor time for the bill to be debated and voted on. It would then proceed to a House-Senate conference committee to resolve differences between the two bills.  House Republican leadership appears reluctant to bring the bill to the full House for fear that it will use up valuable time and divide their caucus. Deficit hawks often criticize farm bills for cutting too little, and some Democrats have already vowed to fight the bill for cutting too much from SNAP. With the current Farm Bill expiring at the end of September, Congress will have to take some kind of action by then. Stay tuned.