–Melissa Campbell, Conservation Director
Our Policy Round up took a bit of a hiatus last month as the Farm Bill legislative process seemed to meander. However, in the past week there were a few notable highlights mixed with good and bad news for programs critical to conserving farmland, protecting natural resources, and assisting new and beginning farmers.
Thanks to our friends at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition for advocating on behalf of small farmers and farmland preservation organizations everywhere and keeping us updated on the issues critical to conserving, stewarding and nourishing our land and communities:
The big news this week was the release of the Senate Agriculture Committee-approved Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2012 (the proposed name for the 2012 Farm Bill) and the accompanying budget scoring table from the Congressional Budget Office.
On April 26, the Senate Agriculture Committee approved its version of the 2012 Farm Bill, the Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2012, by a vote of 16-5. Exactly four weeks later, on May 24, the Committee actually reported the text of the bill.
It is normal for there to be a lag time between Committee action and actually reporting of the bill, as in most instances there are revisions to be added based on amendments approved in markup as well as technical corrections to be made to the text to get everything in proper order. That process might normally take about a week or ten days. However, in this instance an entire month went by not due to the normal reasons alone, but also because of a behind-the-scenes controversy that took place between the Committee and the official congressional budget scorekeepers, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).
Also this week, the timing for Senate floor consideration firmed up a bit more. When the Senate returns from its Memorial Day recess week on June 5, the first order of business will be consideration of the Paycheck Fairness Act. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid indicates that once consideration of that bill is complete, the next order of business will be the farm bill. That might mean the beginning of the farm bill floor debate on June 7, or at least by early the following week. In either event, it will surely spill over into the week of June 11.
The House will be on recess the week of June 11, setting up the possibility that the Senate might have completed its consideration of the farm bill by the time House Agriculture Chair Frank Lucas has indicated he would like to start markup of his version of the bill in committee on June 19. If he is able to keep to his preferred timeline, it is assumed his version of the bill will become available at least a few days in advance.
Perhaps the most important development of this past week was the release by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) of the House floor “to do” list for this summer. Very conspicuous by its absence is the farm bill. This is consistent with what we have been hearing all spring from those in close touch with House Speaker John Boehner’s office, but with the Senate moving forward and with Chairman Lucas (R-OK) and Ranking Member Peterson (D-MN) doing everything they can to try to jump start the House process, there was hope pressure would build for House consideration of the 2012 Farm Bill on time, this year. Without House floor consideration in July, there would be very little hope of having a final bill by the September 30 deadline. If it becomes clear the House will not take up the bill then, the normally routine but likely very difficult process this time around of extending the current farm bill for a few months or a year will have to begin this summer, and that effort, too, would need to be successfully concluded by September 30.
In terms of the budget, the most relative to the work of PCC Farmland Trust is the portion of the Bill related to conservation programs. Conservation program spending would equal almost $58 billion over the coming decade under the terms of the Senate Committee bill according to CBO estimates. This amount represents a $6.4 billion cut relative to a continuation of current law. The total represents six percent of total estimated farm bill spending and the total proposed budget cut represents a 10 percent cut from baseline levels, or slightly more than the cut proposed for commodity and insurance subsidies.
Within the top three conservation programs, the Conservation Reserve Program would suffer a 16% cut, the Conservation Stewardship Program would suffer an 11% cut, and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (as merged under the Senate bill with the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program) would suffer a 9.6% cut. The EQUIP program is an important funding mechanism for small, family farmers, providing cost share for critical infrastructure such as fencing, high tunnels and restoration assistance. The new Agriculture Conservation Easement program (an amalgam of the current Wetlands Reserve, Grassland Reserve, and Farmland Protection Program) would cost $809 million more over the next decade than the current baseline (from the three predecessor programs)of just over $3 billion. Protecting the integrity and funding of the Farmland Protection Program is critical for PCC Farmland Trust and other land trusts conserving farmland statewide and nationally. This program is the only federal program which provides funding for protecting working farms and without it, our future farmland preservation programs could be significantly hamstrung.
In a nutshell, funding levels for rural development were completely left out of the Senate Committee bill, while funding for beginning and minority farmer programs are hurting badly. The news is somewhat better on the organic and local food front, though further improvements will hopefully be made in all three areas when the bill is on the Senate floor.
You can always learn more at NSAC’s website.