2018 Farm Bill: Some Victories, but Bigger Reform Needed

'Our Farm Bill' Campaign Concludes for Now

The membership of the Land Stewardship Project (LSP) launched the “Our Farm Bill” campaign in 2016 as an ambitious grassroots effort of family farmers, rural communities and urban allies to change the direction of federal policy. It was a campaign based on the vision that our public policy should originate from and support family farmers and rural communities, not just corporate agriculture and the largest farm operations.

During the two years of our campaign, over 615 people attended organizing meetings, actions and events with legislators. There were 78 visits with legislators or their staff, eight fly-ins to Washington, D.C., and at least 3,273 responses to action alerts or postcard drives. Our campaign was clearly one of the largest progressive farmer-led grassroots efforts focused on the Farm Bill in the Midwest, if not the country.

The strong work done by LSP members and supporters through our powerful movement for a better Farm Bill achieved concrete outcomes—saving the nation’s largest working lands conservation program, for example—and demonstrated clearly the need for much greater reform and a change in direction for federal farm policy.

Unfortunately, when they passed the 2018 Farm Bill earlier this month, lawmakers did not embrace the large-scale reform advocated by our members. While we celebrate the victories this bill represents, we know that we face an ever-growing farm crisis that, if left unaddressed, will negatively shape our rural landscapes for generations to come.

What We Achieved

The 2018 Farm Bill has passed both houses of Congress with bipartisan support and was signed by the President today, Dec. 20, 2018. This bill will govern our agricultural programs for the next five years and have a significant impact on people’s lives. Approaching the next growing season with knowledge of what’s in the Farm Bill is crucial to farmers' decision-making as they prepare for a new growing year.

1.Saving the Conservation Stewardship Program & making it stronger

The most significant victory our grassroots movement attained was stopping the elimination of the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). CSP is the nation’s largest working lands conservation program, a nearly $4 billion investment over the life of a Farm Bill in family farmers, our soil and our water. This is a significant victory and ensures that farmers and ranchers may continue to receive support for working lands-based conservation approaches that they choose to maintain and improve on their farms during contract periods that last five years or more.

LSP members, through tireless organizing and advocacy, emerged as one of the loudest and clearest voices defending CSP, and played a significant role in stopping this critical program from elimination.

Our work not only helped save CSP, but made it stronger. LSP Members were instrumental in the introduction of the SOIL Stewardship Act, which Rep. Tim Walz and Senator Tina Smith both introduced. Key elements of this bill are in the final Farm Bill, including increasing CSP payments for the most significant conservation practices, like cover crops, resource conserving crop rotations and advanced grazing.

2. Stronger permanent funding for programs that serve beginning farmers, socially disadvantages farmers & local food systems

Two other top LSP priorities made it into the final bill. Reorganization of and increased funding for the Farming Opportunity and Training and Outreach, (FOTO) program, and the Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP) help maintain and ensure effective support for our nation's next generation of farmers, and the emerging local foods system that offers opportunities for their financial success.

3. Other Priorities

Also included in this Farm Bill are tweaks to the commodity and dairy titles that seek to address the economic crisis many established as well as new farmers are faced with. These tweaks are important, but time will tell if they are sufficient to staunch the economic bleeding that threatens the future of farmers and the vitality they contribute to our rural communities. It is very likely not enough.

Changes proposed to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that would have reduced access to food stamps for more people were not adopted, which is good news for those who need a way to ensure they can feed themselves and their families during tough times.

Click here for more policy analysis of the bill and our policy priorities.

So Much More Was Needed

The tough process of hammering out a Farm Bill is the push-and-pull of competing priorities and policies that require investment from the public treasury. The 2018 Farm Bill is rightly described as a "status quo Farm Bill." That’s the problem.

For too long, Farm Bill policy has been shaped by large corporate interests that seek to increase their power and leverage with help from Farm Bill policy. That's the status quo.

Examples of this occurring in this Farm Bill include the increased loopholes that expand the number of non-farming individuals that can receive the kind of commodity payment support that primarily benefits the largest corporate farm entities and agribusinesses. Another example was the continuing flow of public money through the Farm Bill to factory farms to fund their creation or expansion.

Failure to again place any limit whatsoever on the amount of crop insurance premium subsidies farm businesses can receive serves to increase the leverage and power of the largest and most aggressive segments of agriculture at the expense of rank-and-file family farmers and the next generation seeking to gain a foothold.

Our Work Will Not End

As a membership organization, LSP's campaign goal was never simply to achieve a set of policy wins. Our goal was to change the way these policies were made and move those policies toward a transformational vision of a more just food and farming system that serves people and the land. We took steps toward that vision as we pushed through the deep and prevailing cynicism that exists around federal policy and engaged thousands of new people in our movement to achieve real outcomes.

We know this isn’t enough. We know many will see this Farm Bill as “more of the same,” and it will only reinforce the cynicism that everyday people have no say in corporate-controlled agriculture policy. We know that the farm crisis is only deepening, and will undoubtedly have to be addressed before the next Farm Bill is created in five years.

We therefore will not stop our work. While the “Our Farm Bill” campaign concludes for this Farm Bill cycle, we will continue our grassroots movement to make sure this legislation is implemented in a way that it puts people and the land first. We will also be vigilantly aware of how to advance opportunities both at the state and federal level to address the growing farm crisis. As a people-led movement, our members and supporters will continue leading and driving forward our vision of a food and farming system that sustains family farmers and the land and builds strong and healthy rural and urban communities.

Ben Anderson and Tom Nuessmeier are LSP organizers who work on federal farm policy. For more on LSP's federal farm policy work, click here.