What to Know as Congress Gears Up for Farm Bill Conference
Editor's Note: This post has been updated to reflect U.S. Senators named to the Farm Bill conference committee.
With the current Farm Bill set to expire on September 30, Congress continues movement toward new legislation that will set the direction for a broad swath of policy on farming, land conservation, nutrition programs, planning, and rural development.
Both the House and Senate have passed versions of the Farm Bill. The House bill was narrowly approved in late June. The Senate measure enjoyed broad bipartisan support on an 86–11 vote on June 28. A House-Senate conference committee must now reconcile the differences in the two bills.
Crafting a compromise may be challenging given some stark differences between the measures. On most key issues of importance for good planning, the Senate bill is preferable to the House version.
House leaders named their roster of conferees last week appointing 47 members — 29 Republicans and 18 Democrats. The Senate also announced its 9 conferees — 5 Republicans and 4 Democrats — as the calendar turned to August.
The heavy lifting will be done by the four leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees: Reps. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) and Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) and Sens. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.).
Conferees may not have their first formal meeting for several weeks, but work is already under way to begin hammering out differences.
How the Bills Measure Up
The House and Senate take sharply different approaches to key conservation programs.
The biggest difference is in the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). The House eliminates the program and folds it into the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). However, many of the distinctive features of CSP would be lost under the House bill. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition estimates the House plan would cut working lands conservation by $5 billion and affect "tens of thousands" of farmers and ranchers.
The Senate maintains the existing conservation structure. While the Senate does propose cuts to EQIP and CSP, those reductions are offset by increases for easements and partnerships. Overall conservation funding would remain steady. The Senate bill also makes some policy changes. According to NSAC the Senate language improves "coordination between EQIP and CSP as well as additional payments and support for cover crops, diversified crop rotations, advanced grazing management, and comprehensive conservation planning."
One area where the House bill improves on the Senate version is measurement and evaluation of conservation programs. The House bill authorizes and funds more regular evaluation of conservation outcomes by USDA. This information would be a valuable addition for local and regional planning.
Local / Regional Food Systems
A range of programs aimed at supporting local food systems fare very differently under the two bills.
The House approach would be devastating for efforts to support healthy food access, farm-to-table initiatives, farmers' markets, and food systems planning. By not providing mandatory funding, the House bill effectively eliminates the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program, Value Added Producer Grants, National Organic Certification Cost Share Program, Rural Energy for America Program, and Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program.
The Senate bill advances a number of important planning and local food initiatives. The Senate bill creates and provides mandatory funding for a Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP). This program streamlines the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program, Regional Food Economy Partnership Program, and Value-Added Producers Grant Program into a single program that boosts public private partnerships and encourages a "food-shed" level approach to regional food planning and economic development.
The Senate also includes $4 million per year in mandatory funding for a new produce prescription pilot program, "Harvesting Health Pilots."
The Senate version also reauthorizes the Healthy Food Finance Initiative and establishes a new Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Forms of Production and creates a new grant program aimed at urban and indoor agriculture. The Senate also would force USDA to reverse course and maintain an Under Secretary position for rural development.
The Senate bill also creates a Rural Investment Stronger Economy (RISE) Grant Program, helping localities strengthen the local economy through job accelerator partnerships with the private sector and institutions of higher education.
Both the House and Senate bills boost funding for the Food Insecurity Incentives Program with the House bill coming in at $65 million per year versus the Senate's $50 million. The House also provides slightly higher funding for Community Food Projects ($9 million per year versus $5 million per year).
Both bills expand the language of the Strategic Economic and Community Development Program to cover all programs under USDA Rural Development, and require the Secretary provide technical assistance to communities in developing strategic community investment plans.
One of the most contentious areas of difference is nutrition assistance. The House bill includes changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This is the main federal food assistance program serving more than 40 million Americans.
The House plan expands the number of people subject to work requirements by raising the top age to 59 from 49 and including more people caring for school-age children. It would also put new limits on the ability of states to waive work requirements. In contrast, the Senate made no changes in SNAP aside from extending job training pilot programs and boosting income verification.
House Democrats strongly objected the SNAP provisions in the bill, and Senate Democrats have so far insisted that any compromise bill drop the House language.
support for critical conservation and local food systems programs
The Senate bill is substantially better than the House version on a host of planning and community initiatives. The bipartisan Senate measure would continue recent efforts in communities and regions across the country to improve food system planning, expand access to healthy food, improve rural economies, and protect vital agricultural land and environmental resources.
Top image: Getty Images photo.