Category Archives: Federal Policy

Farm and Food News 10/28/11

Farm And Food NewsCrafting a smarter farm policy

Three agricultural leaders—Jon Scholl, President of American Farmland Trust; Garry Neimeyer, President of the National Corn Growers Association; and Chandler Goule, Vice President of Government Relations for the National Farmers Union—propose that the current crop insurance program and general farm policy initiatives should be revamped “to craft a smarter farm policy for America that will be responsible to taxpayers and effective in helping farms and ranches remain viable and productive.”

Global food sovereignty

National Food Day was celebrated this past Monday, October 24th for the first time. It brought together people across the nation to recognize healthy, affordable, and sustainable food. Farmers around the world are making efforts to provide for their communities, and this special day marks another way to underscore the importance of farm and ranch land to our food systems.

Vermont seeks aid for storm damage

An estimated more than 20,000 acres were damaged in Vermont due to Tropical Storm Irene. Representative Welch (D-VT) has suggested three different bills to aid in the restoration and repair of the land damaged and money lost by farmers.

New York acquires additional funding for farmland damage

In New York, there has been another successful awarding of federal funds to farms impacted by the intense weather patterns earlier this year. The funding will go toward emergency conservation and watershed programs. In addition, farmers impacted by the floods have found unique ways to raise money for their relief efforts.

Farmland protection in West Virginia

West Virginians interested in preserving agricultural land can now apply for a farmland protection grant. The funding goes toward the purchasing of conservation easements that limit non-agricultural use of the land. The deadline to apply is November 15th.

Iowa hosts Agriculture for Life conference

Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, is hosting a day-long conference on November 3rd called “Agriculture for Life: Cultivating Diversity in Iowa Fields and Food Systems.” A panel of speakers will include a nutrition director, a previous Kraft Food brand manager and various other Iowans.

New geocodes provide easy farmers market access

The USDA just announced its Excel spreadsheet publication of street addresses and geocodes for over 6,200 farmers markets in the United States. Now you can access your favorite markets with the touch of a cell phone key.

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Farm and Food News 10/21/11

Direct subsidies in the farm bill

On Thursday night, the Senate passed an amendment proposed by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) to prohibit subsidy payments to farmers with an average annual income exceeding $1 million. Though only proposed for the short-term, this decision highlights the continued discussion on what form subsidies may take in the next farm bill. To help people understand the different proposals, we recently engaged noted Ohio State University agricultural economist Dr. Carl Zulauf to analyze the features of the leading safety net proposals.

Farmland transformed into thriving natural sanctuary

A Minnesota farm couple converted their old plowed land into a grass-fed cow “oasis” while preserving native trees, shrubs and species. Their revised landscape also helps reduce soil erosion and water pollution, which in turn brings additional species to their property

Inmate-farmer relationships form

The Idaho potato harvest got a little extra help this year from the state’s Department of Correction. Inmates helped farmers out across the country, providing the farmers with greatly needed support and the inmates with a task in hand.

Kentucky increases local food access

In conjunction with the University of Kentucky and the Governors Office of Agriculture, a new online resource was created for Kentuckians to have easier access to locally produced food. The page also includes nutritional, economical and environmental resources.

Vacation on the Farm

Farms opening their doors to overnight guests are a rising trend across the United States right now, and one that has been popular in Europe for decades. They offer a very realistic look at farm life and one that you can often participate in, while also enjoying the countryside.

New England gains protected farmland

Warren, Maine gained two additions to their “Forever Farms” preservation program this past week: Hatchet Cove Farm and Oyster River Farm. Across the state line in Concord, New Hampshire, city council approved an easement for a 72-acre farm that will prevent future subdivisions and development from the property.

Preserve North Carolina Farmland

Want a grant to protect farmland in North Carolina? You are in luck! The N.C. Agriculture Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund are currently accepting grant applications up until December 15.

Food Day, October 24

To celebrate Food Day, on Monday, October 24, join NYU for a panel discussion of beginning farmers who live and work in New York state. If you are in the Washington, D.C., area, stop by the National Archives for their Food Day Open House. We will be there along with the USDA and ThinkFood Group.

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How I Got Into Conservation: A Lifelong Journey

Note: John Stierna recently received the prestigious Norman A. Berg Conservation Legacy Award, given by the National Capital Chapter of the Soil and Water Conservation Society (SWCS) to individuals who have made outstanding contributions in advocating the conservation of soil, water and related natural resources, and whose service and accomplishments have made widely recognized contributions to the development of leading edge technologies that serve conservation at any geographic area, while working in the Washington, D.C., area.

Minnesota Farmstead 1995

Minnesota Farmstead 1995

As a boy, I always loved my family’s farm: the outdoors, the fields of hay and oats, the woods, and the gentle stream that flowed across the farm and emptied into Grave Lake in Minnesota’s Itasca County. The farm work, while strenuous, was still fun to a lad in his teens. We were fortunate. We never had the dust storms they had out in the west. Nor did we have very much visible sheet or rill erosion since many fields were planted to alfalfa or clover. Even the oats or wheat helped provide ground cover after sprouting—thus reducing the impact of rain. However, the manure from our dairy cattle clearly provided a risk of runoff that could have adverse effects on the stream and the lake. I started to get the feeling that we could do something more to protect the stream and lake, but I also felt that any effect from our one farm would be minimal since few other working farms were in our immediate area.

John with Oliver 1995

John Stierna (left) with Uncle Oilver Juntunen (right) 1995

After college and graduate school, I became engaged in private sector research and then water policy for the National Water Commission – work that me closer to policy aspects of both water quality and water quantity. When I joined the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (formerly the Soil Conservation Service) I quickly realized that the collective impact of millions of farms on the environment would be substantial over the longer term, yet any adoption of conservation practices would be on a much more localized basis—farm by farm. A real need existed to have tools to influence private landusers to adopt measures that could protect the land and waters on site and those beyond the farm boundaries. The economic evaluations often showed the need for some incentives to offset costs to help producers install suitable conservation systems.

Over the years, I was able to become more and more engaged in policy analysis that has helped bring forward some of the conservation policies and programs to make that happen. From early work on the Resources Conservation Act activity when Norm Berg was Chief of the old SCS, to later work on the Conservation Reserve Program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, and the Conservation Security Program and the conservation title of several Farm Bills— these efforts all added to the suite of programs that can assist farmers and ranchers in addressing resource concerns on their farms and better protect the landscape.

Wow. This was a far cry different than the ideas I had as a lad on the farm. But sometimes it takes many years to evolve thought and concerns into workable policies and programs. Persistence over time is something that both Norm Berg and I have shared during our careers. Norm, who played a critical role in the beginning of agricultural conservation in the United States, was a committed conservationist throughout his life. I feel honored to have worked with such a distinguished professional as Norm.


John StiernaAbout the Author: Stierna has more than 45 years of experience in natural resources and agriculture as an economist and policy analyst in both the public and private sectors. He has provided significant leadership for economic analysis, policy formation and legislative analysis during his career with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Washington, D.C., and he now serves as a natural resource policy consultant for American Farmland Trust

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Why Is Conservation Important?

The House has adopted a 2012 budget that disproportionately impacts conservation on our nation’s farms and ranches!

waterWe need a strong, consistent farm policy that includes funding for conservation. But the short-sighted 2012 spending bill approved by the House threatens to pull the rug out from under conservation funding, a key area needed to help farmers and ranchers safeguard our environment and protect their land.

Why do you feel conservation funding is important? Share your comments and help us build a strong message as we prepare to reach out to the Senate and ensure that they deal more fairly with funding that impacts America’s farms and ranches.

Updates:

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How Should Federal Budget Cuts Impact Farms, Food and Farmland?

As legislators and the president face our fiscal realities, federal budget decisions are being made right now that will affect agriculture programs this year and through 2012.

United States CapitalThe required cut to 2011 appropriations—$32 billion in total—sets the boundaries on government spending for the remainder of the fiscal year. It will be up to the House Appropriations Committees, including the Agriculture, Rural Development and Food & Drug Administration Subcommittee, to decide how and where to cut spending. These committees can take an across the board percentage cut to the agencies, or, they can recommend cuts to individual programs.

The overall challenge issued to the Agriculture Appropriations Committee is to cut $3.2 billion of discretionary spending from their budget of $23.3 billion. Finding where to make the cuts is complicated because many programs are interconnected. For instance if the discretionary program for conservation guidance to farmers loses funding, the support needed for everything from farmland preservation and conservation to food and nutrition programs (food assistance), food safety, and renewable energy is threatened—putting programs at risk of being unable to provide the solutions they are intended to provide.

As the fate of the 2011 budget is ironed out, a look to 2012 is even more daunting. Cuts projected to surface in the 2012 budget proposal are estimated at $75 billion in discretionary funds alone. Further cuts to meet deficit reduction goals could possibly dip into programs like the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program or the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, threatening initiatives that provide the very basis for conservation and land protection, help advance rural prosperity, and create greater access to local and healthy food for consumers.

The federal farm bill programs are a key source of support for farmers’ and ranchers’ environmental stewardship, but conservation program funding has already been targeted for budget cuts. Farmers and ranchers are under increasing pressure from both consumers and regulators to address environmental concerns while at the same time, facing record demand from world food markets. In order to grow and prosper, agriculture must meet this demand while also protecting the environment—a tall order. The 2012 Farm Bill must reaffirm the importance of environmental stewardship, while also doing more with fewer dollars—improving the cost-effectiveness of the conservation programs, promoting new income streams like ecosystem service markets, and making it easier for farmers to adopt environmentally sound practices.

Balancing the value of federal programs while also balancing the budget is a difficult proposition and begs the question: What is the best thing we can do with the money available? It requires a look at what goals we have for our nation’s farm and foods, and it’s a challenge we’d like you to consider!

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Farm Programs That Fit the Times

The 2008 Farm Bill featured the creation of the Average Crop Revenue Election (ACRE) program. American Farmland Trust guided its development in conjunction with agricultural economist Dr. Carl Zulauf, who was the chief economic designer and modeler of this innovative risk management tool for farmers. In this guest blog post, Dr. Zulauf reflects on the current ACRE program and sets the tone for the discussion of the government’s role in farm policy and safety net programs in the 2012 Farm Bill.

In the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown, the American public is once again debating what role government should play managing economic risk, but this time during severe budget deficits.  Throughout our history, Americans have preferred a free market economy and limited government involvement in individual business failures.

At the same time, there are some economic risks, which affect so many people at once, and are so far beyond the control of individuals, the government enacts policies to help manage them.

Farming, one of the basic sectors underpinning our economy is a highly risky business. Despite all the advances in production practices and the best planning in the world, farmers continue to face risk from factors largely beyond their control.

Moreover, some risks can affect large numbers of farmers all at once, something we economists call “systemic risk.” This includes things like widespread weather problems from drought, to significant market problems like the Asian fiscal crisis in the late 1990s.

Even individual insurance companies can get overwhelmed with these types of risks, for instance, when multiple hurricanes hit in one season.

Unfortunately, American agriculture could be better served by our current government farm programs that do not provide our farmers with adequate assistance against revenue risks.

The current farm programs also don’t serve taxpayers. The current half-dozen farm programs have a variety of overlapping objectives that can lead to duplication in payments. Both taxpayers and many farmers increasingly object to programs that send government checks even when farmers don’t experience a loss, yet don’t help in situations when farmers are in genuine need.

So how can we design a 21st century farm safety net program that provides an appropriate and equitable safety net for farmers, but costs taxpayers less?  By using the following principles:

  • The farm safety net addresses risk management, instead of providing income support.
  • Government programs address systemic risk, the type of risk beyond the control of the individual farmer and problematic for private insurance companies.
  • Payments are only made when a farmer experiences a loss, and only for the amount of the loss;
  • All government farm risk programs, including insurance, are integrated to avoid duplication and save money;

Recent progress was made in the 2008 Farm Bill with an experiment for a new type of risk management program. The Average Crop Revenue Election (ACRE) program was designed as an option for producers to address systemic risk for both price and yields. A specific proposal to improve on this concept and to meet the above objectives is to modify ACRE so that it is fully integrated with crop insurance, which addresses risk unique to an individual farm.

What would farmers gain? Assistance, when it is needed, against the kind of systemic risk that can cause widespread bankruptcies and dislocation, even among well-managed operations and through no fault on the farmer’s part.

What would the public gain? A more transparent, streamlined and focused farm safety net that can be less expensive to taxpayers because it eliminates duplicate coverage and because payments would only be made when there is genuine need.

In short, we can reduce our budget deficit and still provide the risk management this critical sector of our economy needs.

This commentary piece was originally featured in Iowa Farmer Today.


About the Author: Dr. Carl Zulauf is an agricultural economist at The Ohio State University.

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The New Political Landscape – Farm Policy Implications

The 2010 midterm elections brought significant changes to the makeup of Congress.

In the House, the Republican Party gained 63 seats to take a 242 to 193 majority, while in the Senate, the GOP gained five seats, narrowing the Democrat majority from 53 to 47.

The November results also brought a change of leadership at the House Agriculture Committee, where Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Oklahoma) has taken over from outgoing Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minnesota).

United States CapitalShortly after the election, in a webinar presented by the Washington, D.C. based law firm McLeod, Watkinson & Miller (“Election Results and the Agriculture Committees”) former Staff Director of the House Agriculture Committee Bill O’Conner pointed out that, “Chairman Peterson had wanted the farm bill in 2011, and incoming Chairman Lucas had never been very excited about that, and has now publicly stated that he thinks it’s better to do the farm bill in 2012. That will give the committee some chance to adapt to the new situation and to do the background hearings necessary to begin to familiarize themselves with the very large and complex jurisdictions in a farm bill.”

A CQ- Roll Call Summary of new House Members indicated that a few freshmen bring an agricultural perspective to Capitol Hill.  Among them is Rick Crawford (R-Arkansas), a self described “deficit hawk” who “spent most of his working life in agriculture-related news services.”

Vicky Hartzler, a new GOP Member from Missouri “owns an agricultural equipment business with her husband,” and has made balancing the budget one of her key priorities; and, a former Ohio Farm Bureau President, Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio) has indicated that “cutting the federal deficit and lowering the national debt” is one of his top concerns.

Representatives Crawford, Hartlzer and Gibbs, will all serve on the House Agriculture Committee.

Balancing fiscal restraint while maintaining a sound national agricultural and food policy will be a key issue as Congress gets to work.

The Hill newspaper reported last week, “Farm subsidies and the Commodity Futures Trade Commission (CFTC) will come under scrutiny from Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), the new chairman of the [Appropriations] Agriculture subcommittee.”

Rep. Kingston stated that, “If there is an agricultural conservation program that is popular in red states, we have to look at it. If there is an inner-city school lunch program popular in blue states, we have to look at that, too.”

With respect to the Senate makeup and agriculture, the most significant change is the appointment of a new Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.  After Blanche Lincoln (D-Arkansas) was defeated on November 2, and Sen. Kent Conrad (D-North Dakota) opted to retain his chairmanship of the Budget Committee, Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan became the new leader of the Agriculture Committee.

In her first speech as the new Chairman, Sen. Stabenow indicated last week that, “We are going to have a series of hearings on how the farm bill is working and what should change…[W]e will need to find creative solutions to help our growers manage risk. The safety net might look a little different than it does now.”


Keith GoodAbout the author: Keith Good, an attorney from central Illinois, compiles a daily summary of news relating to U.S. farm policy each weekday at www.FarmPolicy.com.

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Tax Package Will Promote the Protection of Working Farms and Ranches

American Farmland Trust and other national conservation organizations heralded the recent signing by President Obama of the omnibus tax package and its provision to extend the enhanced conservation easement tax deduction for the 2010 and 2011 tax years. Originally included in the 2006 Pension Protection Act, the enhanced conservation easement tax deduction allows qualified farmers and ranchers* to deduct the value of a conservation easement contribution up to 100 percent of their Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) and expands the period landowners may carry-forward any unused value of a deduction up to 16 years. The legislation greatly increases the potential use of this option to protect our nation’s working agricultural lands.

Conservation easements have been used voluntarily by landowners to protect agricultural lands from development and fragmentation for close to 30 years. The donation or sale of conservation easements has enabled farm families to protect their land for future generations while receiving tax benefits or cash based on the land’s full market value. The donation of conservation easements by landowners has been influenced by IRS rules. However, until the 2006 Pension Protection Act established the enhanced conservation easement tax deduction, these rules provided minimal incentives for farmers and ranchers with a large percentage of their equity tied up in their land. The former IRS rules limited the carry-forward period over which a donor could claim a deduction to six years and capped the annual deduction at 30 percent of AGI.

A simple example can illustrate the power of the new rules in enticing full-time farm and ranch families to consider donating a conservation easement on their productive agricultural land or accepting less than the full purchase price when selling a conservation easement to a publicly funded Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easement (PACE) program. Consider that a conservation easement donation valued at $450,000 and made in 2010 or 2011 by a qualified farmer with an annual AGI of $50,000 will yield the full value of the donation in federal income tax deductions in nine years (the value of the gift up to 100 percent of AGI each year for 16 years or until the gift value is used up: $50,000 X 9 = $450,000). Under the old rules, that same gift would have yielded only $90,000 in federal income tax deductions to the farmer (the value of the gift up to 30 percent of AGI each year for six years or until the gift value is used up: $15,000 X 6 = $90,000).

By creating an opportunity to deduct a large percentage, if not the full amount, of the value of a donated conservation easement, the expanded federal conservation tax deduction provides farmers and ranchers with a powerful business and estate planning tool. This new tax treatment also makes the bargain sale of a conservation easement in a PACE transaction worthy of much more serious consideration by agricultural land owners.

By increasing the likelihood that landowners will donate or accept a discounted price for conservation easements, the federal tax incentive provides tremendous leverage for public farm and ranch land protection funding, stretching those dollars at a time when budgets at all levels of government are stressed to the limit.

* Qualified farmers and ranchers are those who earn more than 50 percent of their gross income from the business of farming in the taxable year in which the conservation easement is donated. Land subject to the conservation easement must be available for agriculture.


About the author: One of the nation’s leading experts in Farmland Protection, Bob Wagner celebrated his 25th year at American Farmland Trust in 2010 and has worked in the field of farmland protection since 1981. In his current position, Wagner helps states and local communities nationwide build support for and create policies to protect agricultural land.

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Farmland Is at Risk in Every State

Every day, farmland continues to disappear across America.

Newly released statistics show that in this country, we’ve been losing more than an acre of farmland every minute. That stacks up to nearly one million acres per year converted to highways, shopping malls and poorly planned development. The recent National Resources Inventory, conducted by the USDA, shows every state losing farmland during the recent 25 year reporting period.

States losing the most acres of farmland between 1982-2007 include Texas, California, Florida, Arizona and North Carolina.

New Jersey, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Delaware and New Hampshire lead as states with the greatest percentage of farmland lost during the same period.

Visit the Farmland Information Center for the full report and state by state data.

Food security and the country’s need to produce fresh food for healthy diets have become critical national priorities – and both are inextricably tied to having adequate, productive farmland in America. But the nation’s best and most productive agricultural land – including the land that grows fruits and vegetables – is disappearing the fastest.

America’s cities sprang up where the land was the richest.  Today, the farms closest to our urban areas produce an astounding 91% of our fruit and 78% of our vegetables, but they remain the most threatened. In addition, many of these at-risk, urban-edge farms are the ones growing fresh food for farmers markets, CSA’s and other direct-to-consumer outlets. And our prime agricultural land the farmland that has the ideal combination of good soils, climate and growing conditions are being converted at a disproportionately higher rate.

What can communities do in the face of development pressure? The decline in agricultural land conversion from 2002-2007, despite record highs in building permits and housing completions, offers some encouraging news. Smart growth strategies, including more efficient development, can help slow the conversion and fragmentation of our farm and ranch land. At the same time, communities, states and the federal government can invest in permanent protection to ensure there is a future supply of agricultural land in America.

We’re continuing our analysis by taking a closer look at the biggest losers, the places making progress with winning strategies, and what it will take to save our important agricultural lands across the country.

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On-Farm Conservation Gets a Big Boost with New Loan Program

What if you were a farmer who wanted to apply a conservation practice on your land but didn’t have the money to do so?  Since most government conservation cost-share programs require the practice to be completed before receiving any reimbursement, you’d probably be out of luck.  In fact, many American farmers who need and want to implement conservation measures on their land, do not have the “up front” funds available to make this happen.  Luckily, there is a new solution.

On September 2nd, the Farm Services Agency announced the rule creating the new conservation loan program, providing farmers with up front financing to install needed environmentally sound measures on their land.  Either a direct loan or a loan guarantee is available to implement a conservation project according to an NRCS approved conservation plan.  After implementation, any financial assistance from USDA would be used to repay a portion of the loan, leaving the farmer to repay his or her share over the term of the loan.  The program gives priority to beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers as well as those owners or tenants wishing to convert to sustainable or organic production systems.  Priority is also given to farmers establishing practices to comply with highly erodible land requirements.  However, the program is open to all farmers to help address conservation needs on the landscape.

American Farmland Trust and our partners pushed very hard for this program during the 2008 farm bill and we are very pleased to see this program created in the law finally come to fruition though the USDA rulemaking process.

Secretary Vilsack describes the program:

“This will give farmers who want to implement conservation measures on their lands a chance to do so by providing assistance with their up-front costs,” said Vilsack. “In return, these producers will help to reduce soil erosion, improve water quality and promote sustainable and organic agricultural practices.”

We see this as a great opportunity to attain more conservation on the ground across America. Since money is usually the primary impediment to implementing new conservation practices, we hope this program will break down that barrier for many farmers and free them to take the necessary steps to keep the land, water and our food healthy.

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