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Federal Farm Bill

President Obama recently signed into law the Agricultural Act of 2014, the farm bill. It represents a major compromise and is the result of more than two years of hard work. While a clear majority of New England’s congressional delegation voted against it, the bill does include more than $1.2 billion of investments over the next five years in programs for local and regional food systems, organic agriculture, rural development, beginning farmers, and dairy production.

Last year, New England Farmers Union (NEFU) identified five priority areas for the farm bill: 1) local and regional food systems, 2) dairy policy for New England, 3) conservation and renewable energy, 4) organic agriculture, and 5) beginning farmers.  The bill funds many of NEFU’s priority programs at record levels. 

Local and Regional Food Systems

The farm bill tripled funding for the Farmers’ Market and Local Food Promotion Program and expands the program to allow grants to direct-to-consumer projects and projects that support local and regional food enterprises through processing, aggregation, distribution, storage and marketing.

Funding for the Community Food Projects—a grant program that works to increase food security in communities through promotion of self-reliance of communities to meet their own food needs, increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and creating innovative solutions that mutually benefit agricultural producers and low-income consumers—was nearly doubled at $9 million per fiscal year.

The bill includes a new grant program, the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive grant program for nonprofits (including agricultural co-operatives, farmers’ markets, and community-supported agricultural programs) engaged in programs that increase the purchase of fruits and vegetables by low-income consumers participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

The bill also includes authorization for a pilot project for procurement of unprocessed fruits and vegetables under the National School Lunch Act by allowing for geographic preference, including requirements for at least one project to occur in the Northeast region.

SNAP benefits will now be able to be used for purchase of community-supported agriculture shares, and the bill includes pilot projects for improving online and wireless technologies used in purchases made with EBT cards.

USDA was also directed to develop and implement a new nationwide Whole Farm Diversified Risk Management Insurance product to provide revenue insurance for highly diversified farms of all kinds, including specialty crop farms, integrated grain-livestock farms, organic farms, and farms geared towards local markets.

Dairy

The farm bill repeals the Dairy Product Price Support Program, the Milk Income Loss Contract, and the Dairy Export Incentive Program. In their stead, the bill includes two new programs, the Margin Protection Program and the Dairy Product Donation Program, while maintaining the 1949 Dairy Price Support Program

The Margin Protection Program for Dairy Producers is a voluntary program that pays farmers an indemnity when a national benchmark for actual dairy production margin (the difference between the all-milk price and the average feed cost) falls below an insured level that can range from $4 to $8 per hundredweight of milk. 

The Dairy Product Donation Program is another new program under the bill that requires the Secretary of Agriculture to administer a dairy product donation program that addresses low operating margins experienced by participating dairy operations and provides nutrition assistance to individuals in low-income groups, triggered when the actual dairy production margin has been $4 or less per hundredweight of milk for each of the preceding two months.

The Dairy Forward Pricing Program, the Dairy Indemnity Program, and certain provisions of the National Dairy Promotion and Research Program are continued under the bill.

Conservation and Renewable Energy

Wetland and soil conservation rules (conservation compliance) will apply to any farmer who receives crop insurance premium subsidies. 

Wetlands Reserve Program, Grasslands Reserve Program, and Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program are consolidated under the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program and are provided with permanent funding.

The Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative, Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative, and Agriculture Water Enhancement Program are consolidated under the Regional Conservation Partnership Initiative.

Funding for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is set at $8 billion total for fiscal years 2014 through 2018.

The bill provides funding for the Bioenergy Program for Advanced Biofuels in the amount of $15 million per year. The Bioenergy Program for Advanced Biofuels helps to ensure the expanding production of advanced biofuels other than ethanol derived from corn kernel starch and supports producers to support and expand production.

Organic Agriculture

The National Organic Certification Cost-Share Program, which helps offset the costs of annual certification for organic farmers and handlers, more than doubled its annual funding with $11.5 million annually.

The Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative was renewed at $20 million per year and the Organic Production and Market Data Initiatives at $5 million over five years.

The bill also includes exemption of certified organic products from promotion order assessments (checkoff programs) and to allow for the establishment of an organic checkoff program if so elected.

Beginning Farmers

The bill reauthorizes the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, a program designed to develop and offer education, training, outreach and mentoring programs to enhance the sustainability of the next generation of farmers with $20 million per year.

The bill also provides $33 million for the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) – Transition Incentives Program to incentivize retiring landowners to rent or sell their expiring CRP land to new or minority farmers.  The bill also increases the advance payment that beginning or socially disadvantaged farmer can receive from EQIP and creates a new emphasis on ensuring the sustainability of the next generation of farmers within USDA’s new agricultural conservation easement programs.

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