Farm Policy Matters
Monthly News Bulletin
Speakers shared ideas about how we can grow the next generation of farmers through state and federal policies and programs, how to level the playing field for small to mid-scale producers, and promote conservation.
In addition, speakers talked about
The promise of organic and the challenges the industry faces;
How we are weaving the fabric of local and regional food systems in Ohio;
The threats to sustainable agriculture and public health from unconventional oil and gas extraction, and
How we can be the change we want to see by planting the seeds for a future of sustainable agriculture through our engagement with the policy process.
OEFFA also honored Senator Sherrod Brown with the Food and Farm Champion Award in recognition of his efforts to promote local and regional food systems.
Budgets, Budgets, and More Budgets
Members of Congress had trouble compromising on a 2018 budget but reached a deal in February. While this sets parameters for spending, the devil is in the details, and that is where the appropriations process comes in. We have been operating on a series of continuing resolutions (CR) for the 2018 budget. Since last fall, we’ve been on a fifth CR, which expires March 23. Due to a discretionary funding increase, its likely Congress will able to finalize appropriations legislation for fiscal years (FY) 2018 and 2019 later this year.
The President’s budget proposal for FY 2019 was also released last month. That proposal included major changes to federal food assistance and total elimination of the Conservation Stewardship (CSP) and Regional Conservation Partnership (RCPP) programs.
CSP is the nation’s largest conservation program, and helps farmers and ranchers implement whole-farm conservation plans to address priority resource concerns including soil health, water quality, and wildlife habitat. OEFFA member Janell Baran utilized CSP to protect water quality by using non-chemical methods to control invasive species such as Ailanthus and to produce non-timber forest products for sale, while maximizing biodiversity for long-term ecosystem health and sustainability.
RCPP supports conservation projects through partnerships with farmers, state governments, and nonprofits. Several RCPP projects have been funded in Ohio this year including one led by the Tecumseh Land Trust to improve water quality, which demonstrates and documents the benefits of best agricultural conservation practices for water quality, aquatic and wildlife habitat, and soil health, and will permanently preserve prime farmland and well-functioning stream corridors.
While the President’s budget is not necessarily followed by Congress, it sends a signal of the administration’s priorities. According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition this proposed budget is “the most anti-rural, anti-farmer proposal the agriculture community has seen in years. If these proposals are realized, it will not just be America’s family farmers and ranchers that suffer—every one of us that depend on a safe, abundant, and sustainable food system will be affected.”
Certified Transitional Program
The whole- grain cereal and snack company Kashi is paying farmers transitioning to organic production more than $1 million in premium prices for their crops as part of its private Certified Transitional Program.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved a similar certified transitional program last year but was not able to implement the program due to the threat of a lawsuit brought by the Western Organic Dairy Producers Alliance. The USDA countered that the National Certified Transitional Program operates within the law. The department is reviewing the requirements before accepting any applications.
During the three-year transition to certified organic, farmers often have increased costs but cannot yet receive the organic price premium. Demand for organic food continues to increase while land in organic production is not keeping pace with that demand.
Ohio Legislature Debates Bill to Commodify Fracking Waste
Bills introduced in the Ohio House and Senate this session, would allow oil and gas waste, including fracking fluids, to be sold as a “commodity.”
According to proponents of Ohio House Bill 393 and Senate Bill 165, this waste could be sold in stores and spread onto roadways as a deicer and for dust control.
OEFFA presented opponent testimony to the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee:
“Allowing an applicant to ‘demonstrate to the chief that the intended use of the commodity is not expected to result in damage or injury to public health, safety, or the environment’ is not a sufficient standard. Spreading this fluid, which could include radioactive materials and unknown chemical products, and runoff can enter farm fields and food production areas, is not only a concern for the potential decertification of organic farms. It is also a food safety and public health concern for our rural communities.”
OEFFA Joins National Coalition Supporting Family Farmers
Organizations are challenging a proposed bill that would make it illegal for states to enact laws prohibiting the trade of agricultural products based on how they are produced.
According to the Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM) and Family Farm Action, House Resolution 4879/3599, introduced by Representative Steve King (R-IA), will:
- Nullify most laws at the state and local level that address the production and manufacture of agricultural products;
- Further the globalization of the food system by removing the right to protect businesses and way of life, and
- Limit consumer choice.
Examples of laws that could be negated include:
- Labeling and sale of maple syrup, farm raised fish, and more;
- BPA-free baby food containers, perishable food labeling, and labeling of consumer chemicals known to cause birth defects.
OCM and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition issued a statement that the bill would "limit consumer choice, negate the ability of local governments to protect citizens, and sacrifice market opportunities for family farmers, only to benefit a few corporate agribusiness leaders." OEFFA is a signatory on the letter.
Crop Insurance Coverage Tops 300 Million Acres
Farmers set a record by enrolling more than 300 million acres in the federal crop insurance program in 2017.
Crop insurance is a taxpayer-subsidized program and is the largest federal support for growers. A target in the 2018 Farm Bill negotiations, crop insurance use is on the rise but not all growers have equal access to coverage and some basic conservation practices, like cover cropping, are not compatible with the program.
Crop insurance companies paid $4.5 billion to producers for 2017 crop losses and collected more than $10 billion in premiums. The government, which subsidies the insurance premiums paid $6.4 billion in 2017, and producers paid $3.7 billion. Learn more about why and how we can modernize the crop insurance program here.
Being a Small Farmer is Hard, Made Harder by Bad Policies
A new report from the USDA Economic Research Service found that as many as 75 percent of small farms in the U.S. are experiencing serious financial risks, compared to around 30 percent of large farms.
The report, America’s Diverse Family Farms, found that despite a high level of risk, small farmers are less likely to receive government farm supports, which are disproportionately allocated to large-scale farms. The report also found that net farm income is at a five-year low.
About 90 percent of all farms are categorized as small and are responsible for approximately 20 percent of agricultural sales. Large farms, on the other hand, comprise just two percent of all farms but account for more than 45 percent of agricultural sales.
As most farm families depend on off-farm income, the report also emphasized that other policies—such as tax reform, economic development, and social programs—can be just as important to rural farm families as farm policy.
USDA Launches Farmers.gov
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue unveiled a new USDA website, which will allow farmers to make appointments with USDA offices, file forms, and apply for programs.
A department spokesman said that most forms currently need to be filed by mail, fax, or in person, and not online. Additional functionality will be added to the site over time allowing for a login process and access to mobile-friendly digital forms and more. The Farmers.gov site is meant to be a one-stop shop for the Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service, and Risk Management Agency.
Check-Off Programs Face Increased Scrutiny
A federal judge ordered the National Pork Board, an industry checkoff program, to stop paying $3 million a year to the National Pork Producers Council, the industry's lobbying organization, for trademarks including "Pork: The Other White Meat." The allegation was that the trademarks (no longer in use) were overvalued. According to Politico, the Pork Board purchased the trademarks in 2006 for more than $34 million to be paid over 20 years. The payments account for 30 percent of NPPC's budget, according to court documents.
The Organization for Competitive Markets and the Ohio Farmers Union released a report last month alleging serious abuses of beef check-off funds and calling for reforms. The check-off programs are mandatory and the funds are to be used to promote the industry. The report alleges that these funds have been used to support state and national lobbying organizations. The Ohio Department of Agriculture and the industry groups deny any misappropriation of funds as well as the need for reforms.
Price Fixing Charges Target Chicken Industry
Two different food distributors, Sysco and US Foods, allege that large chicken processors colluded to raise the price on chicken. The targets of two lawsuits are Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s Pride, Koch Meat Co., Sanderson Farms, Perdue Foods, and others. The food distributors charge that these companies used a confidential industry database on chicken pricing to share information and conspire to raise prices.
Sysco and US Foods are the two largest food distributors in the country and control about 25 percent of food distribution. The two companies attempted to merge in 2015, but the deal was blocked by the Federal Trade Commission.
Farmers have claimed that these large chicken processors use predatory tactics to lower prices and control supply. Efforts to provide increased transparency in livestock contracting and protect farmer free speech in this area were blocked by the Trump administration. Learn more about problems with the contract chicken industry here.