MINNEAPOLIS—On Friday, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) introduced a bi-partisan draft Farm Bill that stands in stark contrast to the extremely partisan House bill released and voted down in May.
The Senate’s draft includes some much-needed Farm Bill reforms, including expanded high-speed internet to rural communities; protecting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) funding and access for low-income Americans; and securing permanent funding for the Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP), which focuses on improving local and regional food systems by making it easier for producers to connect with markets.
In a big win for rural communities, the draft bill would restore the position of Undersecretary for Rural Development, a critical post that Sonny Perdue eliminated last year in his restructuring of USDA.
“Rural communities are experiencing higher levels of outmigration and poverty than urban and suburban parts of the country,” said Tara Ritter, Senior Program Associate at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP). “Rural areas need USDA’s attention and investments, and restoring the Undersecretary position is a step in the right direction.”
The Senate’s draft is a mixed bag for conservation programs. On the positive side, the bill does not propose any major cuts to conservation programs. However, funding is trimmed from working lands conservation programs, including the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). The money from working lands programs is reallocated to easements and other set-aside programs. Funding for easements did need to be increased, as the 2014 Farm Bill drastically cut their funding. However, working lands conservation programs are over-enrolled and need a funding increase to meet demand and assist farmers in implementing conservation practices on their farms.
Despite these crucial improvements over the House bill, the Senate draft Farm Bill does not address the structural problems that have led to four straight years of declining farm income and increasing debt. The Farm Bill must do much more to decrease American dependency on volatile export markets, to incentivize sustainable agricultural practices, and to alleviate the financial crisis facing family farmers across the nation.
Even with these shortcomings in the bill, IATP is pleased that the Senate did not follow the House’s partisan push to increase work requirements for SNAP, cut multiple vital farm programs, and favor factory farms. IATP applauds the Senate for its bipartisan effort. However, more work can, and should, be done to answer the challenges facing family farmers, consumers, low-income Americans, and the environment.