Every 5 years the United States reviews and signs into law a new Farm Bill. We were due for a new bill starting in 2012, but it took until this past February for Congress to sort through what didn’t work in the past, add new things for the future, and generally agree enough on everything to have the President sign the bill into law.
Don’t worry, this isn’t a column about the intricacies of government legislation, but the Farm Bill is something we all should pay attention to because it largely governs our food systems. I’ve always thought that it should be called the “Farm and Food Bill” – then maybe we would take more of an interest.
More than 75% of the funding in the bill is for low income population nutrition assistance programs, so yes, food’s a big part of it. Only about 15% will go to any farmers. The bill authorizes $956 billion in spending over the next ten years (yes, even though another bill will need to be passed in 5 years) and it’s good to know that support for local food is increasing under the legislation. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is making an unprecedented investment of about $78 million in food hubs, farmers markets and other local food businesses.
Large commodity farmers have always enjoyed crop insurance. Plant a crop, it gets wiped out by, for example, a drought, and crop insurance has got you covered. Small diversified farms have traditionally not been able to purchase such insurance in the past, but the new Farm Bill requires a whole-farm crop insurance policy option. This will allow small farmers to insure all their crops at once instead of one crop at a time, and encourages crop diversity and flexibility, which is one of the intrinsic goals of many of our North Country farms.
There’s also something called “Business and Industry Program Loan Guarantees” and the 2014 Farm Bill requires that 5% of these funds to be set aside for local food businesses. This is actually a continuation of what was established in the 2008 Farm Bill, but we’re glad they kept it in for another 5 years.
One issue that many of us struggle with is the affordability of locally-produced food. In many ways it makes sense to purchase locally, but the price may be higher than food produced on a larger scale, often placing the possibility of purchasing fresh local food out of reach for the lower-income consumer. The new Farm Bill has created the “Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Grant Program” which will give SNAP (food stamp) recipients increased purchasing power for fruits and vegetables. In addition, the electronic benefits transfer (EBT) equipment necessary to process SNAP benefits will become more accessible to direct marketing outlets for local food such as farmers markets and CSAs. The farm bill will have provisions to make the equipment and fees affordable for small direct-to-consumer retailers.
Unfortunately, overall funding for the SNAP program was reduced which could place more of a burden on our food banks and pantries. Food banks, with their limited capacity to store fresh and perishable items, have been largely excluded from procuring local food. The new farm bill increases funding to food banks by $200 million. Possibly this will help them to purchase more fresh food. Ultimately, what we need is the infrastructure to keep fresh food in good condition at the food bank. Perhaps in future years’ funding?
Keep supporting your local farmers whenever you can and visit adirondackharvest.com to find farmstands, farmers markets, CSAs and much more.