The U.S. Congress has begun its work to develop legislation to reauthorize many programs of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that are important to the nation, agriculture and, specifically, the produce industry. Working directly with members of Congress and through organizations like the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance, PMA’s work on the next farm bill has also begun. PMA’s efforts aim to protect and grow current programs of the farm bill that help the produce and floral industries thrive, ensure new initiatives do not adversely harm the produce and floral industries, and work together with other similarly interested organizations to advance the interests of members.
The importance of farm bills for the produce industry has been increasing, but in different ways than it has for producers of traditional, row-crop staples such as corn, soy and wheat. As a whole, the produce industry has always resisted the lure of the types of subsidies often associated with farm bill policy and row crops. Yet, the ability of lawmakers to provide relatively predictable funding over several years’ time to tackle persistent, complex issues makes a farm bill an attractive vehicle for addressing some produce industry needs. For example, crop insurance has become a principal vehicle for risk mitigation for all crops, and added policies and subsidies to expand coverage to more crops and make policies more affordable, especially fruits and vegetables. Challenges remain, however, because of the high value of fruit and vegetable crops and the commensurately high premiums for policies to insure them.
Recent farm bills have also provided dedicated funding for specialty crops, organic agriculture, block grants to states for specialty crops, and pest and disease programs. The funding for these and other specialty crop programs in the 2014 Farm Bill averages $739 million per year. Stable, reliable funding for these activities not only provides a direct benefit for produce and floral growers, but it also helps attract investment and other funding to address critical needs affecting the industry, including talent and research.
Unlike some U.S. federal agencies such as the Department of Defense, whose programs and activities are reviewed and approved on an annual basis, agricultural programs undergo reauthorization on a longer cycle. The federal government’s involvement in farm policy has much of its origin during and after World War II, when food security for the nation and its troops was a concern during the war and as soldiers returned from the battlefields to the farm when the war ended. Today, the extended timeframe for federal policy is in large part due to the needs of farmers and landowners to have predictability about federal policy in order to reliably make investments in land and equipment.
That the law-making process required to enact farm bills has become increasingly difficult has also favored legislation of longer duration. The most recent farm bill, enacted in 2014, was the product of years of negotiations. The bill sets policy for farm programs, conservation, federal agricultural research, crop insurance, nutrition assistance programs and other areas important to agriculture and rural communities for five years. While the current farm bill doesn’t expire until Sept. 30, 2018, Congress began work on reauthorization in February and March 2017 to have the best likelihood of completing the new bill on time.
The permanent addition in 1973 of the Food Stamp Program (now named the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) to periodic farm bills forged a long-standing alliance between members of Congress representing rural districts and those from urban areas. The inclusion of these programs in farm legislation also increases the importance of the farm bill for produce growers, as they often assist low-income families to afford including or increasing fruits and vegetables in their diets.
Produce growers in the United States also benefit from important trade programs included in the farm bill. The Market Access Program (MAP) and the Foreign Market Development Program (FMD) help to promote U.S. agricultural products in foreign markets. Additionally, export credit programs help to keep the cost of export sale financing affordable in some countries.
The U.S. House and Senate Agriculture Committees will continue to hold hearings and listen to industry priorities throughout 2017. Representative Mike Conaway (R-TX), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, has mentioned publicly he intends to have a farm bill through his committee and on the House floor by the end of 2017. The Senate traditionally moves at a slower pace and will likely wait for the House to pass their version of the bill before considering its Senate version of the farm bill.