In 2018, 68.2 percent of The Farm Bill’s funding allocated 68.2 percent to commodity programs and commodity crop insurance subsidies.
The 2018 Farm Bill increases mandatory funding for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), from $250 to $450 million per year.
The Local Agriculture Market Program includes a program to support systemic local food solutions as opposed to one-off projects that are often uncoordinated.
Indigenous and veteran farmers can access assistance from the now permanently funded Farming Opportunities, Training, and Outreach (FOTO) program.
Carbon farming practices are not addressed in the 2018 Farm Bill.
How FEderal Policy Impacts Hudson Valley Food Systems
Contributor: Lisa Elaine Held
Federal government policies shape every aspect of the food system in the United States, and agricultural policy, especially, has long favored large-scale commodity agriculture over the small family farms the Hudson Valley foodshed is known for.
Confronting that reality is more important than ever, as the threat of climate catastrophe intensifies and the downturn in the farming economy extends to local, direct-to-market systems.
“For years, the overall agriculture economy has been in a pretty bad state, but for many of those years, it seemed like the local food sector…was still growing and doing quite well,” says Wes King, a senior policy specialist at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC). In other words, commodity corn prices might have been down, but farmers’ markets where small Upstate farms sold their produce were flourishing. “Now, it seems that things have started to impact the farmers’ market and local food sector.”
That means food and farming advocates are fighting even harder for federal legislation that can help build a resilient regional food system, via programs that train young, beginning farmers, conserve farmland and encourage sustainable practices, and allow food insecure New Yorkers to use their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to buy local produce.
Increasing the localization of the region’s food system while also increasing the number of farms using regenerative practices and improving access to healthy food will require shifting policy priorities at the federal level.
The federal Farm Bill is a package of legislation that is updated every five years, and it has the single biggest impact on what and how food is grown and accessed across the country. Programs in the 2018 Farm Bill are expected to cost more than $428 billion over five years, and the vast majority of that funding goes to four titles: nutrition (SNAP), commodity programs, crop insurance subsidies, and conservation programs.
The vast majority of the agricultural portion of the bill (minus nutrition) is made up of programs that support industrial commodity farms. In 2018, for example, 68.2 percent of the agricultural funding went to commodity programs and crop insurance subsidies, both of which support growers of commodities like soybeans and corn, not growers of so-called “specialty crops” like fruits and vegetables or diversified farms.
Conservation makes up another 28.6 percent, and while some conservation programs were cut in 2018, the new bill did increase mandatory funding for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), from $250 to $450 million per year. That change was a big win for young farmers, says Sophie Ackoff, the vice president of policy and campaigns at the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC), based in Hudson, New York. “When farmland is conserved, it is much more likely to be affordable to a young, working farmer,” she says. Land under agricultural conservation easements cannot be sold for anything other than agricultural use in perpetuity. Although it may increase in value over time, it will therefore be less subject to price increases than land zoned for development.
Just Food Executive Director Qiana Mickie says: “A lot of our work in the food justice space is about trying to get folks of color on land—buying land, stewarding land, growing on land, and harvesting."
Nationally, accessing farmland is the biggest barrier to success faced by young farmers, and farmland is particularly expensive in the Hudson Valley because of its proximity to New York City. The 2017 Census of Agriculture found that the average age of a principal farm operator in NY is 57, so passing land from retiring farmers to early-stage farmers at prices the latter can afford will be key in supporting the next generation and preventing the loss of additional farmland to development. Between 2012 and 2017, New York lost more than 2,000 farms and more than 300,000 acres of active farmland.
Because of multiple factors affecting the dairy market, New York’s dairy farms have been disappearing at the most alarming rate. According to the Census of Agriculture, 779 dairy farms ceased operations between 2012 and 2017 in the state. The 2018 Farm Bill made one change aimed at helping dairy farmers by introducing the Dairy Margin Coverage Program, which is meant to provide a safety net for farmers when prices for milk drop below a certain amount. Signups for the program began in June of 2019.
Hudson Valley’s farmers who run small operations face incredibly tight profit margins, rising land costs, and market access hurdles. This is especially true for those that are certified organic or are using sustainable practices like cover crops, compost, and the avoidance of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Young farmers, dairy farmers, and other under-resourced groups like black and indigenous farmers are perhaps the most challenged of this group.
Many of them have been taking advantage of programs in the Farm Bill that fall under the small “miscellaneous” title. The entire title, which encompasses many programs, makes up less than one percent of Farm Bill spending, sustainable agriculture advocates often refer to it as “tiny but mighty.”
In 2018, the Farm Bill combined two popular programs, the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) and the 2501 Program, which provides assistance to under-resourced groups like indigenous and veteran farmers. The new program is called Farming Opportunities, Training, and Outreach (FOTO). Bundling the two together enabled the program to reach “mandatory baseline” funding, which means that the programs will not have to face lapses in funding again as they have in the past. NYFC’s Finding Farmland Calculator, one small tool to help farmers who are starting out make smart economic decisions around land purchasing or leasing, is an example of an initiative funded by BFRDP. Just Food executive director Qiana Mickie says these programs are crucial to building an equitable regional food system. “A lot of our work in the food justice space is about trying to get folks of color on land—buying land, stewarding land, growing on land, harvesting…” she says, “so these programs in particular have always been a strong advocacy measure for Just Food.”
Similarly, the Value Added Producer Grant (VAPG) program and Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program (FMLFPP) were combined into the Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP), which now qualifies for permanent funding for the first time. New York’s food producers have received dozens of grants through VAPG since 2000, and a recent United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) study published in 2018 found that farms and other businesses that received the grants were significantly more likely to succeed compared to similar businesses that did not. In New York, the grants have been used by organic apple orchards to get cideries started, by diversified produce farms to turn fruits and vegetables into jams and sauces, and by livestock growers to process local meat. The Hudson Valley CSA Coalition was launched with a three-year FMLFPP grant.
The innovative Hudson Valley CSA has received funding from the FMLFPP program.
LAMP also includes a brand new program to support systemic local food solutions as opposed to one-off projects that are often uncoordinated. King says the Regional Food Systems Partnership will fund projects that coordinate multiple players into bigger partnerships within local food systems. “If we could do things in a much more coordinated way and support big partnerships,” he said, there’s greater potential to “move the needle in a more serious way.” That may look like building out multiple supply chain components, for example, and really thinking about food in the Hudson Valley “from the foodshed approach.” It could be building a meat processing facility in an area where there is a real need and then coordinating livestock producers around using that facility and collaborating on getting the meat to buyers. King said the USDA has indicated the program will kick off by the end of 2019.
Finally, SNAP is a massive Farm Bill program that supports food insecure families, communities, food chain workers, and farmers by providing them with extra dollars to buy food. During the lead up to the 2018 Farm Bill, legislative battles centered around making eligibility for SNAP more stringent by adding conditions like work requirements. However, the bill that passed essentially preserved the status quo in terms of funding and eligibility. Mickie said ensuring SNAP benefits are available is just a first step. Just Food’s focus is on educating communities on how to access those benefits and helping more local retailers accept them. “It really shouldn't be polarized between farmers versus food insecure folks…because if there are more folks eating healthy foods and using SNAP dollars to do it at local outlets like a CSA and a farmer's market, then that is money that is supporting the livelihood and sustainability of the small businesses,” she says. “That's the solidarity measure.”
Just Food recently received a SNAP-Ed grant, which comes from federal funds administered by the state, to educate communities on redemption and also help local producers like farms and CSAs become SNAP retailers. The 2018 Farm Bill also expanded a SNAP program that incentivizes using benefits to purchase healthy foods like fresh fruits and vegetables.
Beyond the Farm Bill
Outside of the Farm Bill framework, there are additional ways federal legislation may affect the region’s food system.
Currently, the NYFC is pushing for federal legislation that would extend the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program to farmers. The program currently forgives student loan debt after 10 years of income-based payments for individuals who go into public service professions like nursing and teaching.
NYFC has found young farmers report that student loan debt is the second biggest challenge they face after land access, and a 2015 survey found young farmers were carrying an average of $35,000. “In other industries, that might be a manageable monthly payment, but in agriculture, it either makes it so that then people just can't even choose to go into farming,” Ackoff says, or “even if they are able to start their own farm, it can be super difficult to get credit to grow the business.”
To address corporate consolidation in agriculture, US Senator and presidential candidate Cory Booker has proposed legislation to place a moratorium on acquisitions in the industry. In August Booker announced his Climate Stewardship Act. Among other climate change mitigation initiatives, the bill increases investment for incentives to farmers who implement cover cropping and rotational grazing—practices that not only sequester carbon but can help farms face extreme weather events like droughts and flooding. The act also would provide support for urban farming and a more robust local food system. Booker's fellow Senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has also laid out a detailed agricultural policy platform focused on attacking consolidation and prioritizing the needs of family farmers.
Other Democratic presidential candidates courting the farm vote are offering plans aimed at bolstering the agriculture sector, including Pete Buttigieg who proposes to give more organizing protection to farm workers and an expedited green card process for immigrants who contribute their skills to small rural communities as residents for at least 3 years. Sanders has also proposed stronger migrant worker protections.
Wes King maintains that coordinated partnerships across sectors of the food economy are the best way to “move the needle in a more serious way.”
And of course, the biggest threat to the food system—climate change—is currently barely addressed by federal policy. Initiatives like transitioning more farms to carbon farming practices have largely been ignored nationally, but Wes King said that’s partially because figuring out how to measure and incentivize carbon sequestration in ways that are applicable across different regions of the country is still a work in progress.
“There's been a fair amount of conversation, at least in Congress, about policies and programs that could help agriculture be part of the solution,” he said, “as well as help agriculture adapt to a new reality.”
Many elected officials, for instance, are talking about the role of agriculture in a potential Green New Deal. “What the Green New Deal can look like in terms of food or environmental justice…” says Mickie, “that's very important to us.” Until that initiative progresses, states and local governments are taking the lead on policies that promote climate-smart agriculture.
Beyond the farm Bill
The NYFC is pushing for federal legislation that would extend the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program—that forgives student loan debt after 10 years of income-based payments for individuals who go into public service—to farmers.
US Senator Cory Booker recently proposed legislation to place a moratorium on acquisitions in the ag industry to address corporate consolidation. Elizabeth Warren has also laid out a detailed agricultural policy platform focused on attacking consolidation and prioritizing the needs of family farmers.