10 Important Farm Bill Food Programs on the Chopping Block

Photograph Amanda Lynn via CUESA

This month, Congress is holding the first of many hearings to discuss what will be in the 2018 farm bill. If President Trump's skinny budget is any indication of what's to come, with its proposed 21 percent cut to USDA and the elimination of a federal program that boosts benefits to food stamp recipients having trouble paying heating bills, there may be a lot of critical food and farm programs cut from the bill. On the chopping block already are some very small, progressive farm bill programs that are critical for sustainable agriculture, small farmers, low-income families and rural economies. These programs, which number 37 in all, lack what's known as budget baseline funding, or funding that will guarantee their existence past the current farm bill which expires in September 2018. As a result, these programs will need to be added back into the next bill and re-funded in order to continue to exist, putting them at risk of being left behind for good. We've provided a summary of some of the most important programs at risk below and the role they play in supporting sustainable agriculture.

Beginning Farmer and Rancher Program

Farmers are among America's oldest workers. According to the USDA, the median age for farmers and ranchers is 58.3 years old. And it's not just that farmers are a bit up there in years, their average age has also been steadily increasing for the last three decades. This increase reflects that for many years, young farmers have been tough to come by. That's where the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development program comes in. It's the only federal program that's dedicated exclusively to training young farmers and ranchers. The program provides new farmers with essential technical and business management skills to help them start and run a successful farm operation. The competitive grant program also helps connect retiring farmers and land owners with new farmers and provides vocational training to veterans interested in farming.

Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program

When there are increased opportunities to purchase fresh, healthy, local food, both consumers and farmers benefit. But developing local food systems and getting food from farm to fork takes a lot of work, including building direct to consumer marketing and retail outlets like farmers markets, CSAs and food hubs. These efforts help cultivate economic opportunities for small and mid-sized farmers, strengthen rural communities and economies and improve healthy food access for consumers. The Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program helps to support to direct to consumer marketing strategies as well as local food business that aggregate, store, process and distribute regionally produced food to customers through competitive grants administered by USDA.

Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Grant Program

For millions of rural and urban Americans, especially those living in communities of color, buying fresh healthy food can be incredibly difficult. In these 'food deserts,' full service grocery stores and farmers' markets are rare or difficult to access. But even when Americans can physically access fresh fruits and vegetables, some still can't afford to buy the produce they want. The Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Grant Program helps address this problem by supporting projects that increase opportunities for low income families participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables at farmers' markets and grocery stores by providing incentives at the point of purchase.

Grassroots Source Water Protection Program

Everyone can agree that clean drinking water is critical to every community's health and wellbeing. To protect water resources in rural areas, the Source Water Protection Program works at the community level to educate and inform rural residents to about steps they can take to prevent water pollution and improve their drinking water quality. Through the program, teams made up of federal, state and local government technicians and citizens collaborate to create a plan to protect and promote clean water sources. These plans also identify voluntary actions that farmers and ranchers can take to prevent source water pollution.

National Organic Certification Cost Share Program

Small farmers have had a difficult time meeting the skyrocketing demand for organic food over the past decade. This is due in part to the fact that the process of becoming organically certified and maintaining certification can be expensive. According to the CCOF, organic certification can cost around $1,200 for processors and $750 for small farms the first year alone. That's where the Organic Certification Cost Share Program can help by providing small and mid-sized farmers with financial assistance to cover certification costs. These businesses play a central role in the organic supply chain. Without them,companies selling organic products would be forced to import organic food from outside the US to meet customer demands.

Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Producers

Starting and managing a successful farm is a very tough business that can be full of additional obstacles for people of color and veterans. Although there are several federal programs set up to support farmers in general, farmers of color and veteran farmers have not historically participated in these programs in large numbers, usually due to discrimination and insufficient outreach to these communities. For decades, the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Program (also known as 2501 Program) has been the only farm bill program dedicated to exclusively to addressing the specific needs of minority - and more recently veteran - farmers. The 2501 program provides grants to universities and non-profits that provide outreach, technical assistance and education to help historically underserved farmer populations own, operate and retain farms.

Organic Agricultural Research and Extension Initiative

Despite the fact that the organic food sector is now a $43 billion business and one of the fastest growing agriculture sectors, organic producers still lack sufficient research, education and technical assistance. Investment in research is critical to building the farming industry, as all producers, organic or conventional, need the latest research to help improve their practices and farm in the most efficient and sustainable ways possible. The Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative provides critical support to the organic industry by funding research projects that specifically address the challenges faced by organic farmers.

Rural Micro-entrepreneur Assistance Program 

Farms in rural areas don't operate in a vacuum - they purchase goods and services from a host of other small businesses in their area to keep their farm operation up and running. These small businesses are critical to the health of rural areas, but unfortunately, small business owners often struggle to access credit and technical assistance. USDA's Rural Micro-entrepreneurship Assistance Program is designed to address this problem by providing loans and grants to non-profits, community based banks and local economic development councils, which in turn provide micro-loans and technical assistance to small rural business owners in their communities. 

Value Added Producer Grant Program

One of the best ways for small farmers to boost their incomes is to make value-added products like jams and sauces from their raw fruits and vegetables. Creating these products not only helps farmers capture a larger part of the food dollar but also helps inject money into local rural economies by creating the need for more labor and supplies. Through The Value-Added Producer Grant Program farmers, farmer co-operatives and organizations representing farmers are able to apply for grants to create or develop value-added producer owned businesses.

Wetlands Mitigation Banking Program

Wetlands provide a significant role in the health of the environment. They provide fish and wildlife with important habitat, reduce the impacts from storm damage and flooding, help maintain high water quality in rivers, recharge groundwater, fight climate change and enhance biodiversity. Wetland mitigation is the restoration, creation or enhancement of wetlands to compensate for the harmful impacts to wetlands at another location. The USDA's wetlands mitigation bank allows farmers to purchase credits to compensate for the impact of lost wetlands on their land and help restore lost habitat. 

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The views and opinions expressed by contributors do not necessarily reflect those of the Ecocentric Blog or GRACE Communications Foundation.

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