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We call it the “Farm Bill” but its official name is the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018. It weighs in at more than 1,000 pages and touches a very wide array of topics – probably too wide, everything from food stamps to legal hemp to farm subsidies and rural development policy, along with commodity payment programs and subsidized crop insurance.

This week it moved one step closer to becoming reality when the Senate Agriculture Committee voted 20-1 to send it to the full body for a vote.

This comes just a month after the House voted down its own version of the Farm Bill 198-213, in a move that shocked Washington insiders. No word yet on when – or if – the House version may reappear, though it’s rumored by some that a vote could take place near the end of June.

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Monday, June 18, United Fresh will host a Farm Bill and immigration reform webinar for members at 2 p.m. Eastern. Registration is required at www.unitedfresh.org/united-fresh-webinar-series

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Mitch McConnell

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said a full Senate vote can be expected before Congress breaks for its 4th of July recess. McConnell said he hopes the House will “get to theirs” but acknowledged “it will probably look a little different.”

Backpedaling on immigration issues led to the Farm Bill defeat in the House. The Senate version met no such objections in committee and even overcame a movement to add wording that would direct farm subsidy payments to only small family farmers.

A Produce-Friendly Farm Bill

This Farm Bill has a much more produce-friendly face than earlier versions, with new a program for citrus producers, increased funds for nutrition programs as well as the extension of many of the specialty crop provisions that were included in the 2014 Farm Bill:

  • Specialty Crop Block Grants ($85 million/year)
  • Specialty Crop Research Initiative ($80 million/year)
  • Trade Programs including MAP ($200 million/year) and TASC ($9 million/year)
  • Pest and Disease Programs ($75 million/year) and National Clean Plant Network ($5 million/year)
  • Food Insecurity and Nutrition Incentive Program (FINI) (Increased to $250 million over five years)
  • Emergency Citrus Disease Research and Development Trust Fund ($125 million over five years)
  • $4 million annually for a new research initiative focusing on urban agriculture;
  • Reauthorization of the Office of Pest Management Policy
  • Maintenance of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP) as a fresh-only program
  • A new Harvesting Health Pilot Program that provides a “produce prescription” to those who may be suffering from diet-related conditions

The Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance, made up of more than 120 member organizations, has been the lead group managing the Farm Bill debate since the 2008 Farm Bill. United Fresh serves on the leadership team of the Alliance.

“The Alliance is grateful for the inclusion of these programs in the Senate legislation. These funding commitments demonstrate that the Senate recognizes the value of these programs and their tremendous importance to the specialty crop industry and consumers,” the group said in a statement prepared for media.

“The Alliance also appreciates the collaboration from the Senate Agriculture Committee members that took place to develop such a strong, bipartisan bill. We will continue to work with industry allies in Congress to ensure the program’s original mission of promoting fresh fruits and vegetables is sustained in the 2018 Farm Bill.”

Monday, June 18, United Fresh will host a Farm Bill and immigration reform webinar for members at 2 p.m. Eastern. Registration is required at www.unitedfresh.org/united-fresh-webinar-series

Young Farmers Benefit

“We applaud the Senate Agriculture Committee, and in particular the leadership of Chairman Pat Roberts and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow, for introducing and passing the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018,” United Fresh said in a prepared statement.

“This legislation reflects their important efforts, along with those of their colleagues on the Senate Agriculture Committee, to reach across the aisle and drive consensus policy to support and strengthen American agriculture and the food industry during a very challenging time for our industry sector.

Shute and family

Lindsey Lusher Shute, co-founder and executive director of the National Young Farmers Coalition, weighed in on that group’s behalf.

“Today, members of the Senate Agriculture Committee are thinking like real farmers— with purpose, seriousness, and a deadline.They recognize the stakes and consequences of this Farm Bill, and they’re looking beyond politics to get the job done,” Shute said. “This bipartisan bill meets the urgency of the moment. We thank Chairman Roberts, Ranking Member Stabenow, and our other champions on the Committee for listening to the nation’s young farmers. Today’s proceedings further underscore the importance of defeating the divisive House Farm Bill and delivering a bipartisan bill to the President’s desk on time.”

Drums Of Dissent Are Beating

There’s no such thing as a perfect Farm Bill – there are too many moving parts for that to happen – and already drums of dissent are beating.

While the Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs applauds the bipartisan nature of the bill, Senior Policy Associate Anna Johnson says there still are issues to address.

Johnson

“There are several encouraging proposals in this bill that we will work to support toward final passage,” Johnson said. “For example, the bill strengthens the coordination between conservation and crop insurance, improves sodsaver provisions, and would create greater incentives for cover crops.”

“The bill also takes a historic step by creating a pathway to permanency for several programs essential for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. Additionally, the restoration of the position of Undersecretary for Rural Development would bring rural development back on equal footing with the rest of the agencies at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).”

Johnson said the bill falls short on bringing greater fairness to government agriculture programs.

Grassley Proposal Limited Farm Subsidies For The Wealthy

“We were extremely disappointed that Sen. (R-IA) was not allowed to bring forward a proposal to address abuse of farm programs,” she said. “We will work with Sen. Grassley as the bill moves to the floor. We call on the Senate to close loopholes that allow excessively high payments of taxpayer dollars to go to a small number of large and wealthy operations.”

Grassley

Grassley was the lone member of the Senate Ag Committee to vote no.

In addition, Johnson said she is troubled by the committee’s vote to increase the size of loans available from the USDA.

“Raising loan limits without providing additional funding for loans will deplete available funds more quickly,” she said. “If USDA has another funding shortfall for loans, many farmers and ranchers may struggle to access credit as a result of today’s decision.”

“Additional structural reform proposals to cap crop insurance premium subsidies were unfortunately also absent in the bill,” Johnson continued. “We look forward to supporting the several improvements in this bill while vigorously pushing on its harmful measures as the bill moves to the floor.”

The current Farm Bill expires Sept. 30.

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