On Thursday, June 7th, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) released a bipartisan draft of the farm bill, the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (S. 3042). On Wednesday, June 13th, the Committee voted 20-1 to pass the bill out of Committee. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has said that he hopes to bring the bill to the full Senate for a vote by June 29th – the last day that Congress is in session before the July 4th recess.

 

Unlike the House version of the farm bill, this bill supports many provisions that are important for Maine farmers, particularly in the areas of conservation, local and regional food development, and beginning farmers. Many of these provisions are taken from legislation that was sponsored by Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree and Maine Senator Susan Collins. More specific information about the bill is below. MFT appreciates the work of the Senate Agriculture Committee in crafting and passing a bill that will largely benefit Maine farmers by protecting important farm resources, helping Maine farmers grow their businesses, and supporting the next generation of farmers. However, MFT also hopes to see improvements to the bill to address some of the problematic issues noted below.

 

Funding for Farmland Conservation

 

Good:

 

  • Restores funding to $450 million by 2023 for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), which provides funding for easements on agricultural land.
  • Makes changes to ACEP that will both make the program easier to use for farmers and conservation organizations, and encourage easements that keep land in agricultural use.
  • Increases baseline funding for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), which provides funding for conservation activities through public-private partnerships.

 

Problematic:

 

  • Cuts funding for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) by $1.5 billion over 10 years and for the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) by $1 billion. Both of these programs provide farmers with support to address natural resources concerns on their property while keeping their land in production.

 

Local and Regional Food Systems and Rural Development

 

Good:

 

  • Combines the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program and the Value-Added Producer Grant Program with a public-private partnership provision and a new food safety cost share assistance program. The new program, the Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP), will help to develop regional food economies, and is provided with $60 million a year in permanent funding.
  • Reauthorizes and provides $50 million a year in mandatory funding for the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentives Program (FINI), which provides competitive grants to projects that help low-income consumers participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) purchase more fresh fruits and vegetables through incentives.
  • Maintains funding for the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program (NOCCSP), which helps small and mid-sized organic farm businesses afford annual certification costs.
  • Authorizes and provides $4 million a year in mandatory funding for a new produce prescription pilot program.

 

Problematic:

 

  • Provides no mandatory funding for the Food Safety Outreach Program (FSOP), which is a competitive grant program to help farmers and processors comply with new food safety requirements.

 

Beginning and Socially Disadvantaged Farmers

 

Good:

 

  • Combines the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) with the Outreach and Assistance to Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program (Section 2501). The new combined program, the Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach Program, is provided permanent funding of $50 million a year, which is evenly split between the programs.
  • Strengthens the BFRDP component of the new program by expanding its focus to include food safety training, land access, and succession planning; by eliminating the match requirement; and by prioritizing projects with farmer involvement in program design and implementation.
  • Creates a National Beginning Farmer Coordinator position, with designated coordinators in each state, to enhance USDA outreach efforts to new farmers.
  • Increases the set-asides within EQIP and CSP for both beginning and socially disadvantaged producers from 5 to 15 percent.
  • Increases Farm Service Agency (FSA) loan limits for direct farm ownership loans to $600,000.

 

Problematic:

 

  • Does not include a new Farmland Tenure, Transition, and Entry Data Initiative to collect important data on farmland ownership, tenure, transition, barriers to entry, profitability and viability of beginning farmers in order to improve policymaking and analysis.

 

 

Research

 

Good:

  • Establishes permanent funding of $50 million by 2022 for the Organic Agriculture Research & Extension Initiative (OREI), which supports research projects that address the most critical challenges that organic farmers face.
  • Reauthorizes the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE), which provides funding for farmer-driven research.
  • Reauthorizes the Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI), which provides competitive grants for regional and multi-state projects that conduct research related to specialty crops.

 

Overall, this bill contains many important provisions for Maine farmers. Given that the full Senate will likely vote on the bill in the next week or two, we urge you to contact Senator Susan Collins and Senator Angus King now to make your voice heard about this bill.

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