New Year, New Farm Bill - Part 2
The Senate and House of Representatives passed a new Farm Bill that was signed into law by the Oval Office just weeks before the 2019 ball drop, allowing for me to aptly name this article, “New Year, New Farm Bill.” In the spirit of a new Farm Bill, PCFMA has got you covered on the basics of this massive – and massively important – piece of legislation. In the first installment of this two-part article series, you read about the basic Who, What, Where, When, and Why of the Farm Bill. In this second article, you’ll read about how the legislation impacts farmers’ markets, and major critiques of the bill’s framework and content.
Where do farmers’ markets fit into the Farm Bill?
The Farmers’ Market Promotion Program (FMPP) is one of the notable pieces in the Farm Bill which supports local food procurement, particularly direct-to-consumer food sourcing (aka farmer’s markets and CSA’s). Found in Title XII, FMPP is a $30 million per year, grant-based initiative that is designed to “increase domestic consumption of, and access to, locally and regionally produced agricultural products, and to develop new market opportunities for farm and ranch operations serving local markets by developing, improving, expanding, and providing outreach, training, and technical assistance to, or assisting in the development, improvement, and expansion of, domestic farmers markets, roadside stands, community-supported agriculture programs, agritourism activities, and other direct producer-to-consumer market opportunities.” As one of the program’s grant recipients, PCFMA has been able to develop a project that develops and shares best practices of multi-channel, multi-generational marketing strategies for informing and motivating farmers’ market customers.
The Value-Added Producer Grant Program (VAPG) is another initiative in the Farm Bill which provides grants to farmers who are looking to expand their income and diversify their product offerings by developing value-added goods from their farms (think jams, soaps, cheeses, and dehydrated fruits). A recent USDA study found that VAPG grant recipients were 89% less likely to fail two years after receiving their grants compared to farmers who did not receive assistance.
The new 2019-2023 Farm Bill combines the FMPP and VAPG, as well as the Local Food Promotion Program (LFPP) into a new initiative, called the Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP). The biggest advantage to consolidating these programs into one initiative is that the new LAMP program will have permanent funding, a luxury that was not enjoyed by its predecessors.
Criticisms of the Farm Bill
Numerous academic scholars and food writers and advocates – such as Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, Ricardo Salvador, Marion Nestle, and Olivier De Schutter – have criticized the Farm Bill for lacking a coherent, overarching vision of food policy. Critics say that the hundreds of programs in the Farm Bill work against each other and at times even contradict one other. Marion Nestle, food researcher and writer, uses the USDA’s MyPlate dietary guidelines as an example:
“This guide illustrates the idea that half the plate—50 percent—should be fruits and vegetables. But USDA’s farm bill policies have historically allocated less than 1 percent of farm support funds for promoting these foods, with nearly all of the remaining 99 percent used to support commodity crops. The 2014 farm bill, although increasing allocations for organic and fruit-and-vegetable production and marketing, still does so at a token level. If you were to create a MyPlate meal that matched where the government historically aimed its subsidies, you’d get a lecture from your doctor. More than three-quarters of your plate would be taken up by a massive corn fritter (80 percent of benefits go to corn, grains and soy oil). You’d have a Dixie cup of milk (dairy gets 3 percent), a hamburger the size of a half dollar (livestock: 2 percent), two peas (fruits and vegetables: 0.45 percent) and an after-dinner cigarette (tobacco: 2 percent). Oh, and a really big linen napkin (cotton: 13 percent) to dab your lips.”
As mentioned in the above quote, one of the biggest critiques of the Farm Bill is that it routinely fosters policies that favor commodity crops, which are typically grown by large-scale farmers in the Mid-West and Southern states. At least half of commodity payments and insurance subsidies go to farmers making more than $100,000 per year, and these same commodities farmers are the main beneficiaries of marketing research and promotions, known as “checkoff programs.” The original purpose of commodities programs was to stabilize crop prices, which was done by subsidizing overproduction of these staple crops (which, in turn, increases subsidy payouts). Those who argue against commodities and insurance programs say that these subsidies are outdated.
Critics say that priorities of the Farm Bill must shift to provide better support for specialty crop farmers, “socially disadvantaged” farmers, and small-scale farmers, rather than consistently backing the production of commodities that end up as ethanol, feed for livestock, and – according to FERN – “cheap, highly processed foods that helps drive obesity and the rise of food conglomerates.”
The same goes for crop insurance programs, which tend to provide more benefits to commodities producers. For a 10000-acre corn farm, the insurance policies can offer worthwhile compensations. But, small farmers with highly diversified operations have a harder time placing a value on the numerous crops they produce and qualifying for most crop insurance policies. As a result, small, diversified farms have historically missed out on the benefits of crop insurance. In 2016, 89.9% of American farms were considered small family farms, but only 17% of crop insurance indemnities went to these farmers.
Commodities and insurance programs remain mostly unchanged in the new 2019-2023 Farm Bill. According to a December 2018 report from the USDA’s Economic Research Service, the new Farm Bill is purported to allocate $4 to $6 billion per year of mandatory spending to programs under the Commodities title alone. Comparatively, local food programs have been too small in size to qualify for “permanent baseline funding” in the past: The great news is that the 2019-2023 Farm Bill has ensured permanent funding for the new LAMP initiative as well as programs for minority and veteran farmers, which means that their funding will be safe even when the Farm Bill reaches its five-year expiration dates.
Vote with your fork
Now that you’ve got some basics under your belt, it’s your turn to get out and support the programs that you care about! Visit your local farmers’ markets, opt for fruits and vegetables over processed foods, and if you’re particularly jazzed about the new LAMP initiative, send your thoughts to your local Congress member!
 “Socially disadvantaged” is a term used by the USDA to refer to those whose identity in a group has subjected them to racial or ethnic prejudice without regard to their individual identities. The prejudice originates from circumstances beyond their control.