Final Farm Bill Must Save Farmland, Farm Communities, Environment

Today the House and Senate launched formal negotiations on the fate of the nation’s food and farm policy.  The discussion during the House-Senate conference on the 2014 Farm Bill comes at a time of critical change and challenge for America’s farmers.  The policies at stake impact every American in every corner of the country, not just farmers but consumers, taxpayers and conservationists as well.

The choice confronting Congress could not be starker. Will the final product follow the bipartisan Senate bill, which passed this summer, and embrace reforms designed to address the real challenges facing American consumers, farmers, communities, and environment? Or will it accede to the radical attempt by the House to move the country backward in its version of the bill, which was shaped by partisan ideology and industry pressure? 

Rightly, most of the conference debate will focus on the huge funding gap between the two bills for food stamps and other nutrition programs.  But within the agriculture sections of the bills, the conferees must choose between two sharply divergent visions of how we should treat our farmland and our natural resources. One is for conservation and stewardship. The other is for exploitation and despoliation.  Decades of investment in healthier soils, wildlife habitat, and water quality hang in the balance.

The decision will be made against a changing agricultural scene. Farmers are increasingly confronted with the harsh impacts of extreme weather. Consumers want healthier, sustainably produced food.  Renewable energy -- such as wind, solar, and advanced biofuels -- offers farmers new markets to help combat growing economic pressure on rural communities.  The countryside and America’s small towns are losing population at an unremitting pace.

As many Senators and Representatives made clear in their opening statements, the vision on how to contend with these challenges and opportunities is radically different. “It is very important that farmers and ranchers continue to do the things that make them the best stewards of our land and water resources,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, chair of the Ag Committee. “By reconnecting conservation compliance to our now-strengthened crop insurance program, we protect the future of agriculture.”

Similarly, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa noted that with increasing amounts of soil being washed away, “We need conservation on working lands, and for our livestock producers.”

Sen. Sherrod Brown and his Ohio colleague, Rep. Bob Gibbs, issued a joint statement before the conference: “We must pass a pro-growth farm bill that strengthens rural communities and ensures that they have the infrastructure and resources needed to create jobs and attract new economic development.” Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont warned that the final bill should not “it in any way limit the authority of states to protect the health and welfare of its citizens by adopting strong agricultural standards.”

Other Senators and Representatives voicing support for strong conservation and community development provisions included Rep. Jim Costa of California, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Tim Walz of Minnesota, and Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, among others.

Under Chairwoman Stabenow’s leadership, the Senate’s vision invests in long-standing agriculture conservation programs.  It also upholds the 30-year bargain between taxpayers and farmers by requiring that farmers who receive federal crop insurance assistance undertake basic conservation and environmental practices that protect our soil and environment.  Hundreds of thousands of farmers around the country participate in these programs, helping restore wetlands and prairies and reducing fertilizer and pesticide pollution that poison our rivers and drinking water.

In contrast, the House bill breaks this longstanding link and forces taxpayers to subsidize destructive farming practices that according to USDA estimates could place into production 5.6 to 10.9 million acres of highly erodible land and 1.5 to 3.3 million acres of wetlands that are not currently farmed, with dire consequences for public resources.   Just today, nearly 300 organizations joined in a letter underscoring the critical importance of including in the final bill the language that protects the health of our wildlife, soils, and water quality. 

Equally important, the Senate bill wisely omits the House’s reckless roster of provisions designed to overturn basic health and environmental protection.  For example, the House bill would shield pesticide manufacturers from oversight, overturn rules to prevent the spraying of pesticides into lakes and streams, and gut important conservation programs that help restore wetlands and prairies and reduce fertilizer and pesticide pollution.

The House GOP’s bill makes a direct attack on state’s rights by blocking their ability to set their own food and farm production standards, which could invalidate more than 150 state laws on health, animal welfare, and food safety. The House bill also guts mandatory funding for on-farm renewable energy, depriving producers of this potential revenue-stream while hobbling the drive for American energy independence. These damaging provisions must not be in the final bill.

The Farm Bill conferees’ choice is clear. They must address the plight of rural communities and keep the bargain with taxpayers by continuing to give the farmers the tools they need to preserve the soil, to protect our water and our public health, foster healthy landscapes, and produce healthy food in the years to come. They must block the assault on common-sense environmental laws. In short, they must embrace a vision that takes American farm and food policy forward, not backward.