Local experts and organizations react to the recently passed, and long overdue, federal Farm Bill
Although no one involved in the shaping of the latest Farm Bill was entirely sated with the finished product, it seems that most are pleased with the fact that after nearly three years of delays and debate, a new bill has been agreed upon and passed into law.
“Politics being the art of compromise,” says Congressman Sam Farr (D-17th District), who voted in favor of the bill when it went before the House on Wednesday, Jan. 29, “I thought there was more good than bad.”
The federal Farm Bill is usually reauthorized every five years, but due to across-the-aisle disagreements in Congress over funding for food assistance and crop subsidy programs, the 2008 Farm Bill was not reauthorized until earlier this month.
The 2014 Agriculture Act, the latest version of the Farm Bill, was signed into law by President Barack Obama on Friday, Feb. 7 after being approved by both the House and Senate in less than a week. The omnibus bill, which was originally created during the Great Depression to offset farming surpluses, regulates and funds federal food and farming programs, from crop insurance and farming research to food assistance programs for needy families.
The $956 billion bill will cut approximately $8.6 billion from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the food stamp program, over the next 10 years. This may seem like a substantial reduction, but previous drafts of the bill proposed $40 billion in reduced funding to the program.
“We saved about $32 billion in cuts from the original bill,” says Farr.
The majority of the cuts to SNAP funding will come from new eligibility requirements related to the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). Under a previous provision in SNAP, any individual who received at least $1 in LIHEAP benefits was automatically eligible for SNAP benefits or gained an increase in existing benefits. Under the new Farm Bill, an individual will have to receive at least $20 in LIHEAP benefits annually to qualify for food assistance.
The Farm Bill also prohibits lottery and gambling winners, some felons, and college students from receiving SNAP benefits. This may not be a large population of SNAP recipients, but it is estimated that approximately 850,000 households nationwide will lose an average of $90 a month under the new bill.
This worries local hunger fighters like Second Harvest Food Bank CEO Willy Elliot-McCrea. The organization already serves 55,000 people each month, and Elliot-McCrea says they expect to serve thousands more due to the cuts to SNAP.
“We’re going to have to do more with less,” says Elliot-McCrea. “Our board is very concerned. How do we pick up the slack? I don’t see how we can pick up the slack. We’re doing the best that we can, but it’s disheartening.”
In other ways, however, the bill could benefit the county.
Although the bill has traditionally awarded crop insurance and subsidies only for commodities like corn and soybeans, which are grown mainly in the Midwest, the latest version of the bill will help to support specialty crops, like the fruits and vegetables grown in Santa Cruz County.
“With us being on the Central Coast and not having major crops that benefit from direct subsidies, we’ve always been out of the loop on any of that type of funding, but we’re slowly moving in a new direction,” says Jess Brown, executive director of the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau.
New block grants for specialty crops totaling $375 million over the bill’s intended five-year span will provide growers with funding for food safety and education, pest and disease management, research initiatives, and crop-specific projects.
Other components of the bill that may aid the local ag industry in the coming years include $150 million in federal funding for the promotion of farmers’ markets, and an allotted $100 million for beginning farmers and ranchers to get themselves established. However, the greatest boon to local agriculture may be the bill’s increased funding for organic farming.
“Because organic farming is so prevalent in the Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay area, anytime our federal government increases support to build organic farms it will help farmers here locally,” says Maureen Wilmot, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation.
Organizations like the National Organic Program, which regulates what it means to be organic, will receive $15 million in funding from the Farm Bill, which is an increase of $4 million from 2008. The funding for the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program (NOCCSP) rose from $4.4 million to $11.5 million. The NOCCSP lightens the burden of organic certification costs, and is especially helpful to smaller farms.
The Organic Data Initiative, which observes trends in organic farming, also found increased support in this overdue Farm Bill.
“This allows banks and insurance companies to calculate annuities and risk assessments based on market data,” says Wilmot. “That will help organic farmers have access to loans, and will help with assessing insurance rates. That is huge that the U.S. government is collecting this data like they do for non-organic farmers.”
The 2014 Agriculture Act may not have pleased every politician in the country, and many citizens may be unhappy with cuts to programs like SNAP, but as far as Rep. Farr is concerned, the Central Coast came out on top.
“I think this Farm Bill does just what we need it to do,” says Farr.