Haven’t heard of the Farm Bill? The first Farm Bill was introduced during the Great Depression and intended as a funding safety net for farmers during economic or weather-related disasters, but it has expanded to include new farmer grants, nutrition assistance and farmer training programs. Congress votes on the bill every five years, and it’s usually a highly bipartisan bill that goes through the House and the Senate without many changes and without much of a hiccup. But things went a little sideways this time.
This year, when the Senate and the House presented their versions of the bill in June, they were vastly different. And after months of voting and making amendments, they still haven’t been able to come to an agreement. That’s a big problem, since the old Farm Bill expired at the start of October. Which, according to farmer Olivia Watkins in North Carolina, a member of the National Young Farmers Coalition, “means the funding and programs put into place are on hold due to an inability to reach a negotiation consensus.”
“People are on the side of farmers most of the time,” says Casey Holland, owner of Chispas Farm in the South Valley. “But on this go around the House version and the Senate version were two very different animals. The House version wanted to completely defund 2501 [the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program, a unique federally funded program that aids farmers and ranchers of color] and the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program—all these different programs. The Senate bill didn’t.” One of the most controversial aspects of the House bill has been the introduction of new work requirements for SNAP recipients—without which the president may not sign the bill. And while Congress goes back and forth on these details, many farmers are left without the critical funding, training and support they’ve been relying on to run their farms.
Some of the “stranded” programs that are suddenly without funding include the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative, which conducts research and education to help organic farmers grow and market their produce and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, which is instrumental in preserving farmland and making it affordable for beginning farmers. For not only farmers but scientists, researchers and other federal employees, letting the Farm Bill lapse means sudden layoffs and cuts in funding.
The week of Nov. 12 to 15, 100 farmers from the National Young Farmers Coalition—including Olivia Watkins and Casey Holland—flew to DC to lobby for a Farm Bill that will swiftly bring back the federal funding so desperately needed by young and beginning farmers. NYFC gave a short training session on the details of each of these programs, how to effectively draft a narrative and how to approach and negotiate with legislators—and then sent the young farmers to work. The new lobbyists spoke with their senators and representatives about the programs that they relied on, and how important it was to keep them for future generations of farmers.
These individual stories are critical tools in putting names and faces to the statistics that legislators see all day. It can also educate them about programs they didn’t know were important or widely used—Senator Heinrich, for instance, was surprised when he learned how much of Rio Grande Valley farmers income comes from farmers’ markets and the Double Up Food Bucks program. And those numbers aren’t specific to New Mexico, either—one farm in South Carolina reported that 20 to 25 percent of their profits this year came in the form of SNAP dollars. The NYFC members from New Mexico largely had a receptive audience, but not everyone was so lucky.
“There were some farmers who walked out of these meetings in tears because they accidentally let the term ‘climate change’ slip… I’m so glad I live in New Mexico,” Holland said. “[Congresswoman] Lujan Grisham is so down for the cause. She walked into the room and said “I’m here for you—what do you need?” And [Senator] Heinrich too. I heard them both say they’re supportive. Now I’m going to hold them accountable.”
Of course, the push to get the Farm Bill passed has gained some urgency since the midterm elections, when it became apparent that the House will switch to the Democrats next year. While the NYFC is thrilled that there will soon be resolution, there are some who would argue that waiting to pass the bill until 2019 wouldn’t be the worst thing. “I’m kind of hoping they don’t get it together in time because it will be a totally be a different bill now,” Holland says. But for the many farmers that have been up a creek since the start of October, any bill is better than no bill at this point.
As always, calling your representative is a great way to get your voice heard on the importance of a strong Farm Bill. Visit 2018farmbill.org/