What is the Farm Bill?
The Farm Bill touches almost every aspect of what is grown and consumed in the United States. Reauthorized every 5 years the farm bill is a near trillion dollar Federal funding package that affects the environment, local economies, and public health. In the 2014 farm bill there were 12 sections ranging from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps) to conservation programs to funding for research and infrastructure for specialty crops.
The fruits and vegetables grown on farms in the Red Tomato network fall under a small category called specialty crops. In 2015 Modern Farmer published an article “Specialty Crops” Refer to Weird Things Like…Fruits and Vegetables”. Which is spot on. According to the USDA “Specialty crops are defined in law as ‘fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits and horticulture and nursery crops, including floriculture.’”
The full list of specialty crops can be found on the USDA’s website.
So what are non-specialty crops? The top four crops grown in the country are corn, soybeans, hay, and wheat. And all that corn isn’t showing up on the supermarket shelves as corn on the cob. Instead, it goes towards ethanol production, animal feed, and high-fructose corn syrup. While these programs get most of the attention in the debate over Farm Bill funding, there are hundreds of smaller programs that benefit both producers and consumers of local foods.
How does the farm bill affect specialty crop farmers in the Northeast?
We asked Ben Wenk, of Three Springs Fruit Farm in PA., A new member of our Eco Fruit network, the team markets fruit and vegetables to both wholesale customers and farmers markets. He notes several areas in which the programs in the farm bill are important, if not crucial to their farm.
- First off, the bulk of the Farm Bill budget concerns benefit programs like WIC. As a farm market grower, we need these programs funded. The last 4-5 years have shown sales at farmers markets in the Mid-Atlantic stagnating. One of the few areas of growth at markets during this period has been with those eligible for these benefits who have been directed towards farmers markets. Cooperation between community organizations and health care providers have provided programs to help those benefit checks go farther when spent at farmers markets through “double dollars” programs or similar “match funds” programs.
- We don’t want to see funds cut to the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Grants (SARE) (https://www.sare.org/. It’s their research that helps us be confident that we’re doing our work in the field in the most responsible way – that we’re being good stewards of our farm ecosystems. We all want to leave our farms in better shape than when we started by the time our bodies are no longer able to do the job. It takes programs like SARE to make that happen. [Note: many farms in the RT network, as well as many of the scientists we work with, have participated in SARE research and on-farm demonstrations all across our region.]
- We’ve seen many great examples of Specialty Crop Block Grants that have benefitted our local fruit growing community in Adams County and regionally here in PA. When we’ve been successful in our grant application for these funds, we’ve been able to add innovation and technology that keeps the entire East Coast industry competitive. Today’s successful farmers have to be successful marketers. In commodity agriculture where people’s crops are commingled and priced identically, the importance of marketing is often overlooked. Here in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, where we engage our neighboring communities by selling at farmers markets or selling directly to retailers who use our name as a single farm source, access to programs like the Value-Added Producer grants can be a sea change opportunity for farms who are looking to take advantage of their proximity to urban populations where fresh produce can be scarce or inaccessible.
Red Tomato has also benefited directly from Farm Bill programs throughout our 20+ years. In 2016 RT received a 3 year Local Food Promotion Program grant to help bridge the gap between store level purchasing and scaling local supply into a grocery chains distribution center. This includes work to help local farmers meet chaotic food safety requirements, marketing support, and figuring out the logistics of moving local food at scale. This program, part of the Community Food Project grant program (CFP), is one of many smaller Farm Bill programs in danger of being cut or eliminated in this round of authorization.
How Can You Influence The Bill?
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) have both established tools to make it easy to contact your elected representatives about certain issue areas. The NYFC offers links and info to contact your representatives about these programs.
NSAC has proposed 5 initiatives that support equity and stewardship for farmers across the size/location spectrum:
- The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act
- Local FARMS Act
- Two bills advancing on farm conservation
- A bill protecting seed diversity for future generations
- Improving crop insurance for farmers
You can learn more and write your representatives from their website.
How does the farm bill become law?
The Farm Bill is passed every 5 years. Some parts of the bill have mandatory funding, while others are appropriations – meaning Congress must fund these programs as part of the annual budget cycle. The Reauthorization phase, which we’re currently in, follows the below steps. The resulting bill will change many times as it works its way through the process before becoming final: