Senate Farm Bill: Closer, but not yet “the best bill possible”

The hay ain’t in the barn yet.

The Senate Farm Bill, a flawed but less-destructive cousin of legislation passed in the House 213-211 on Friday, should win bipartisan approval by the end of the week.

The Farm Bill is a five-year bundle of programs and subsidies that touches the lives of virtually every American. The Senate’s version, titled the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, passed the Senate Ag Committee by a 20-1 margin earlier this month. It makes modest progress on sustainable rural energy, local and regional food systems, and conservation. But, it could be better.

The Western Organization of Resource Councils supports a Farm Bill platform that:

  • Develops and expands local and regional food systems
  • Restores fair and competitive markets
  • Protects and improves conservation
  • Defends families’ access to healthy nutrition
  • Ensures fair access to credit and crop insurance
  • Institutes sound supply-management policies
  • Reinvests in public research for the public good
  • and invests in truly sustainable energy solutions

Unfortunately, the Senate bill, as-is, makes no progress on competitive markets, even as just four companies control 84% of American cattle processing, or two companies control three-quarters of the corn seed market. Nor does it make improvements on supply management, even as U.S. dairy farmers sell at an average of $6 per hundredweight below cost while their supply-controlled Canadian neighbors sell for nearly double that rate.

Regardless, Senate ag committee Chair Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) repeated to the floor Tuesday that, “this isn’t the best-possible bill. But it is the best bill possible.”

Some would disagree with the Senate’s inability to cut family farmers a better deal. Some of that disagreement rests in the host of Senators who’ve stepped up to author real solutions.  

These amendments write accountability and fairness into the Senate Farm Bill

  • Checkoff Reform (Sens. Lee and Booker)
  • Anti-Retaliation (Sen. Booker)
  • Farmer Pay Transparency (Sen. Booker)
  • Farm Operator Subsidy Loopholes (Sen. Grassley)
  • Corporate Farming (Sen. Heitkamp)
  • CRP Grazing Flexibility (Sen. Thune)

Checkoff reform

Lee (R-Utah) and Booker (D-N.J.)

There are many documented cases of extreme abuse in commodity checkoff programs, and it is past time for transparency and reform. The Lee-Booker amendment would prevent conflicts of interest and anticompetitive activities, and block governing boards of the checkoff programs from contracting with organizations that engage in lobbying. It would also require checkoff boards to publish all budgets and disbursements of funds for public inspection, and submit to periodic audits by the USDA Inspector General.

Anti-Retaliation

Booker (D-N.J.)

The Booker Anti-Retaliation Amendment would clarify that it is a violation of the Packers and Stockyards Act for a poultry company, meatpacker, or swine contractor to retaliate against livestock and poultry farmers for talking to their members of Congress or other federal officials about their concerns about their contracts or marketing arrangements, for making lawful disclosures related to potential violations of the Act, or for joining together in producer associations.

Currently, the meat processing industry is so consolidated and vertically integrated that farmers and ranchers find themselves up against extreme market forces when trying to negotiate better prices, or calling on their legislators for government oversight. There are documented cases of poultry companies — which control hens from the egg to the slaughterhouse — delivering cases of sickly chicks to poultry farmers who dared speak out against anti-competitive practices.

Farmer Pay Transparency

Booker (D-N.J.)

The Booker Farmer Pay Transparency Amendment would clarify that it is a violation of the Packers and Stockyards Act for a poultry company, meatpacker, or swine contractor to refuse to provide livestock and poultry farmers with the relevant statistical information and data used to determine their compensation. Access to this data allows farmers to make better-informed decisions at contract time, it also gives the public a better picture regarding industry practices and treatment of producers.

Farm Operator Subsidy Loopholes

Grassley (R-Iowa)

Sen. Grassley’s amendment would close loopholes that allow non-farmers to collect as much as $125,000 in commodity subsidy payments. It would direct these subsidies only to the individuals for whom they were intended: actual farmers and ranchers. This amendment was actually passed in the 2014 Farm Bill, but was cut out of the final conference committee bill

Corporate Farming

Heitkamp (D-N.D.)

Sen. Heitkamp’s amendment would make clear that states and tribes have the authority to regulate the forms of business entities that may engage in farming and ranching or own agricultural land within their respective jurisdictions, including prohibiting farming or farm land ownership by corporations. This would allow local governments better legal backing when passing anti-corporate farming laws, or regulating factory farms and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

CRP Grazing Flexibility

Thune (R-S.D.)

Sen. Thune is working on an amendment that would lend more flexibility to ranchers looking to engage in sustainable grazing practices by opening up more land within CRP acres to grazing. Traditionally not allowed on CRP grounds, lawmakers have come around on allowing sustainable, rotational grazing as an ecologically healthy practice in tune with grasslands that once hosted massive bison herds. While the Senate Bill caps total CRP acreage at 25 million, Thune’s proposals will make sure more of that land is acceptable for sustainable grazing.

What can you do to help?

You can contact both of your U.S. Senators and urge them to help make a better bill possible

The Senate hopes to vote on this bill by the end of the week, in advance of the July 4th holiday. It’s important to act now to ensure that your Senators know that you stand for improved accountability and fairness in U.S. ag policy.