And They’re Off: FFN Helps Kick off the Farm Bill Race

Author: Kate Fitzgerald

Oran Hesterman, Fair Food Network’s founder and CEO, presented the results of the 2011 Double Up Food Bucks season at a Senate Agriculture Committee briefing in Washington D.C. on March 1. The Local Food: Growing the Economy and Expanding Healthy Food Access briefing was a part of Ag Committee Chair Senator Debbie Stabenow’s accelerated schedule as she tries to get a new Farm Bill written and passed in the Senate before the Memorial Day recess, when members’ minds turn to home and re-election campaigns. (See the earlier blog post on the process.)

Advocates for fair and sustainable regional food systems should be focused now on helping the effort in the Senate and the House of Representatives to pass a Farm Bill as soon as possible since so many of the programs crucial to the effort will expire with the current legislation on September 30th. Not only could good programs be lost, but the possibility of winning federal support for new efforts (expanded SNAP incentive programs, food hub development grants and increased farmers’ market and Community Food Project programs, for example) is much better now than it would be in 2013.

In a surprising (and welcome) change the interests of the progressive food and farming community align with those of production agriculture at the moment. Both groups agree that it is better to have a Farm Bill finished in 2012 and that it will change the traditional farm support programs.

The direct payments subsidy to commodity farmers will disappear in the Farm Bill being written now, which is a good thing. Commodity groups understand that it is indefensible when crop prices are so high, and they are turning to other mechanisms to protect their interests when prices fall or weather wipes out a crop. An expanded, government-subsidized crop insurance program is the most likely outcome. A clear advantage of the commodity payment programs was that farmers were required to comply with conservation rules in order to participate. Extending this conservation compliance approach to the new insurance programs will be a key part of the negotiations.

There is enormous pressure on the Agriculture Committees in both houses to make big cuts. The proposal that the agriculture leadership presented last fall cut $23 billion over the next ten years. The President’s 2013 budget proposed a cut of $32 billion and the House Budget Committee’s number will almost certainly be even higher. There is simply no escaping the loss of some resources – the negotiations will be over which programs will suffer and how much.

The most successful argument that can be made in a time of budget austerity while the country suffers through a recession is that local and regional food systems create jobs and opportunities while meeting low-income families immediate needs for healthy food. Family farmers’ interests are not antithetical to those of poor urban communities. Both can benefit when they are able to do business together and are not pitted against each other.

Fair Food Network encourages citizens to engage with their elected representatives in Washington and their home districts now. Let them know that you want them to come together on a bipartisan Farm Bill before September and tell them what priorities you think it must include. You can reach your member of Congress by calling the Capital Switchboard at (202) 225-3121 or by visiting