By Melody Meyer
There is a little known yet enormous slice of legislation that gets passed every 5 years or so that literally affects everyone who eats. This mighty omnibus of a Farm Bill wields a trillion dollar budget and touches every aspect of food and agriculture in the US. In Latin omnibus means “for all” and current deliberations on the 2018 Farm Bill have the opportunity to represent organic and sustainable food and farming “for all”—but only if we get involved.
The noun "omnibus" originated in the 1820's as a French word for a long horse-drawn carriage that transported happy Parisians along the thoroughfares. Even now the House and Senate Agricultural Committees are being transported by many opinions on how the next 5 years should shape up in terms of Farm Bill spending.
A Little History
In the 1930’s the Farm Bill originally set up a safety net for farmers who grew a handful of commodities, you know them, corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, rice, dairy, and sugar. The Congressional Ag committees are still offering a good ride to those groups today.
In the 1960’s & 70’s the vast majority of Americans had pretty much moved into town. The introduction of school lunch programs and food stamps became part of the Farm Bill as a way to represent our urban dwelling majority. This link of food and farming, urban and rural is a vital component of getting the bill passed each year. Some would endeavor to split the two apart which could leave the agricultural component with no political horsepower to drive it forward.
As the years progressed, the omnibus became bigger and mightier to fund components such as conservation, rural development, local food systems and horticulture. In 1990 the “O word” was uttered as organic agriculture made its Farm Bill debut with the Organic Foods Production Act. The commodity groups and Big Ag began to share a piece of the legislative pie, truly encompassing the “for all” ideology.
A Lot of Funding
The Congressional Budget Office estimated the 2014 Farm Bill would total $956.40 billion over 10 fiscal years. Yet it’s important to understand that the Farm Bill authorizes programs in two spending categories: mandatory and discretionary. Mandatory spending programs are automatically funded using multi-year budget estimates or baselines. Discretionary spending programs are authorized but not funded directly in the farm bill. They are subject to the annual appropriations process. While both types of programs are important, mandatory programs often dominate the farm bill debate and are typically the focus of the farm bill’s budget discussion.
Four programs or “titles” comprise 99% of the total 2014 Farm Bill budget: nutrition, commodity support, conservation and crop insurance. The nutrition title or SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) (formerly known as food stamps) represents 80% in deference to our urban dwellers. These programs all enjoy mandatory spending in the current Farm Bill.
If the 2014 Farm Bill were to expire without a 2018 version in place, these mandatory programs would continue to be funded. It’s the little understood 1%, the discretionary programs that would fall to the side of the road, leaving many important programs and people behind. This very thing happened in 2012 when Congress failed to act, and discretionary programs were left without funding for two years.
What’s at Risk?
There are innovative and thriving programs that may not get funded unless we let Congress know they are imperative in the next Farm Bill. They include the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) which provides funding for research and education to help solve the challenges that face organic producers. The National Organic Certification Cost Share Program helps ease the cost of organic certification. The Organic Production and Market Data Initiative delivers crucial data to organic farmers, ranchers and manufacturers.
The list of at-risk programs also includes the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program and incentives that encourage landowners to transition farmland to beginning, minority and veteran farmers and ranchers.
All these programs invest in our rural communities by serving organic farmers while creating vibrant local and organic food systems. These programs support the only segment of agriculture that continues to grow by double digits year over year. They truly “make America great” with continued economic prosperity.
What You Can Do?
The National Sustainable Ag Coalition has a terrific blog outlining the dangers and opportunities inherent in the next Farm Bill Process. Read the PATH TO THE 2018 FARM BILL. If you are interested in helping to defend and expand these critical programs, sign up for their action alerts. Now is the time to engage, tell your stories, and communicate with your legislators as the farm bill process progresses.
If you’re daring, join us in Washington DC, May 22-25th for OTA’s Policy Conference and Hill visit days. Farm Bill priorities will be on the top of the agenda as we visit the halls of Congress to deliver our message of growth and prosperity. You may have heard that President Trump proposed a 21 percent decrease in USDA funding in 2018. If these cuts are considered, even the National Organic Program will be under scrutiny as budget leaders assess which programs to fund.
It is important now more than ever that we show up to share the positive economic impact and advocate for the continuation of critical programs that support the growth of our industry.
Let’s steward a 2018 omnibus Farm Bill that has everyone on the bus and leaves no organic and sustainable program behind.