The Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act

The Senate’s Balanced Plan for Five Years of Farm Policy

The Senate Agriculture Committee passed the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act (ARFJA)on April 26 by a 16-5 vote, and with it, the first hurdle in the 2012 Farm Bill race has been cleared.

The bill contains some very good provisions, many of particular interest to local food system advocates.

From Fair Food Network’s perspective, the most exciting piece is the establishment of a new grant program with $100 million in funding that would allow for the expansion of programs such as Double Up Food Bucks to more communities around the country. There is also new funding for the Community Food Projects program, Farmers Market Promotion Program (renamed the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program with an expanded mandate to include food hubs), and Specialty Crop Block Grant program, all of which have been used effectively to build better food systems in urban and rural areas.

There is language to facilitate SNAP use at CSAs (community supported agriculture), SNAPonline food ordering (to serve food desert neighborhoods), and testing better mobile technologies for SNAP benefit redemption. The bill also authorizes USDA’s participation in the multi-agency Healthy Food Financing Initiative to increase the flow of credit to build or improve food retail and supply chains in underserved areas. Together, increased funding and policy improvements in the ARFJA reflect a growing recognition of the economic potential of sustainable, regional agricultural systems and the merits of a closer connection between USDA’s nutrition programs and farm development and marketing agencies.

ARFJA improves a number of agriculture production programs. The elimination of direct payments to farmers irrespective of crop production and prices is the most obvious and is very welcome. Farm programs are designed to provide a degree of certainty and protection to farmers and ranchers whose income is vulnerable to global price swings, weather, and other events beyond their control.

The Senate bill continues the movement toward a system based on crop insurance. The crop insurance market is a public-private hybrid with USDA-approved policies sold by private companies with a share of the farmer premium paid by the federal government. One of the criticisms has been that there are not good policies available for highly diversified farmers (who grow many different products) and those selling directly to consumers or in other high value markets (like organic). The bill directs USDA to create a policy that will work for diversified farms and ranches, a big step in the right direction.

The bill creates a new national standard designed to protect native grasslands from going into production. The federal government pays a reduced share of the farmer’s insurance premium for this land and strict record-keeping is designed to prevent the fragile land from being treated the same as other fields owned by the same producer.

The Senate bill includes a clear payment limit of $50,000 per year and tightens the definition of what constitutes being a farmer (“actively engaged”) to exclude people who are not providing real, ongoing labor to the operation. This closes the loophole that allowed landowners living thousands of miles from the land to participate in a couple of phone calls a year and be considered farmers. Finally, producers cannot receive commodity program benefits for losses on crops planted on newly broken land.

Organic agriculture increases its share of the federal farm funding pie, moving it incrementally closer to getting the amount of support its market success warrants. The bill continues funding for several initiatives to help develop the next generation of farmers and extends the programs to explicitly include veterans in the class of underserved constituencies deserving special attention.

The next step for the Senate farm bill will be consideration and a vote on the Senate floor. Fair Food Network signed a letter from many national organizations encouraging Senate leadership to take the legislation up quickly. The House Agriculture Committee will wind up its hearings this month and is expected to begin consideration of it’s version of the Farm Bill this summer.

The Summary of the Senate Ag Committee’s The Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act for 2012 can be accessed here.