2018 Farm Bill debate is under way

BURLINGTON — Hearings, discussions and debates are well underway for the 2018 Farm Bill, the massive legislation that drives federal farm and food policy — effectively touching almost every person in Vermont.
“Now is the time. The nuts and bolts of putting this bill together is very much happening as we speak,” said Tom Berry, Sen. Patrick Leahy’s Vermont-based advisor on agricultural and natural resource issues.
“The organizations that track this and represent a number of people certainly in Addison County are coming in on a regular basis to our state offices and into Washington along with their national partners to say, ‘Here’s the agenda for forestry in the farm bill;’ ‘Here’s what we need to be doing on nutrition;’ and so on — so it’s very active right now.”
While local dairy farmers are already tracking changes to such components as the Margin Protection Program, a much-criticized part of the 2014 Farm Bill intended to provide insurance against falling milk prices, D.C.-based legislative aide Adrienne Wojciechowski, Leahy’s Farm Bill expert, emphasized that the Farm Bill touches all Addison County residents.
“The name is really a misnomer,” said Wojciechowski. “This is a bill that touches every single American and especially in rural Vermont. For every single person in Addison County, this bill is impacting them. From Lake Champlain (cleanup) to your farmer’s market to the open space that you enjoy — there are farms that have been conserved, there are wetlands that are helping make communities more resilient, there are rural development programs that are helping small businesses. There are businesses that are benefitting from farm credit, and folks who are making loans and supporting rural businesses in Vermont and rural jobs.
“There’s research that’s taking place, not just on agriculture, but on nutrition and food and how we are better serving people and making this country healthier. And there’s a lot of energy work taking place as well.
“So it’s critical that folks realize that it’s not just a Farm Bill. There is so much more in here that helps every Vermonter,” said Wojciechowski.
Congress typically passes a Farm Bill every five years. The current Farm Bill, passed in 2014, expires Sept. 30, 2018. The bill covers 12 areas, including commodity crops (such as corn and soybeans); so-called “specialty crops,” which in Vermont covers things like maple syrup, apples, berries, hops, and any crops not considered “commodities”; crop insurance; natural resources conservation; research on food and farming; energy; rural development; international agricultural trade; and nutrition.
Asked what was being done to address flaws in the dairy Margin Protection Program, both Berry and Wojciechowski said that using regionalized feed prices was off the table.
As currently implemented, most Addison County farmers say the MPP has been nothing but an additional expense.
“It was a brand new program created in the last Farm Bill, and we’ve been through a lot of growing pains trying to figure out the problems,” said Wojciechowski. She noted that as milk prices dipped, Vermont farmers “have been very frustrated.”
One fix floated by Vermont farm experts is use of an MPP formula that regionalizes feed costs. But Wojciechowski said that strategy would be too divisive to implement at the federal level.
Instead, Wojciechowski and Berry explained, Leahy decided to get the jump on this critical piece of farm legislation and address it in this year’s federal budget. Leahy’s approach, which was passed in the Appropriations Committee earlier this summer, “is to enable farmers to simply insure at a higher margin. So rather than trying to drag that bottom line up (by addressing the cost of feed) to enable them to insure at a higher margin by bringing down the premiums.”
The Farm Bill has an important impact on Vermont’s efforts to clean up Lake Champlain, both Berry and Wojciechowski noted.
Berry said that while more money overall might come through the Environmental Protection Agency, the USDA/Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) delivers the most dollars to Vermont’s water quality efforts of any single federal program.
“Senator Leahy worked directly with Secretary Vilsack (Secretary of Agriculture under President Barack Obama) to get a commitment of a minimum amount of dollars under this farm bill, knowing that we really have some work to do on Lake Champlain,” said Berry.
Total EQIP funds to Vermont through the 2014 Farm Bill total $60 million.
In Vermont, EQIP funds a wide variety of farm-related infrastructure projects and farm practices to improve water quality, and also funds the technical support that NRCS offers farmers around the state.
Wojciechowski described EQIP as a USDA program that is “loved by all” and has wide bipartisan support. She said she anticipated that Vermonters could likely expect EQIP funds would continue at current levels.
Berry noted that appropriations for SNAP, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, will likely be a hot topic in continuing debates over the 2018 Farm Bill.
In Vermont, SNAP dollars are administered through the 3SquaresVT program by the Department for Children and Families. Wojciechowski noted that roughly one in nine Vermonters participates in 3SquaresVT/SNAP at some point. She said SNAP dollars can be spent in a variety of ways, from farmers markets to grocery stores. And that the program generates $1.70 in economic activity for every dollar spent. Both described Senator Leahy as a supporter of the SNAP program.
SNAP also is the proverbial gorilla in the room for any Farm Bill.
“The SNAP program is guaranteed to be an interesting discussion because that is where three-quarters of the money involved with the Farm Bill more or less is,” explained Berry. “It’s just an expensive program. It’s one of our largest social safety-net programs, and there’s a lot of active debate around what role the social safety net plays in our society.
“There’s bound to be a fight over that program. There was four years ago, and there’s almost certainly going to be again.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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