Farm policy update: Where we stand after the first Farm Bill markup

Sanaz Arjomand

On Thursday, April 12th, Chairman Mike Conaway of the House Agriculture Committee released the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018 (H.R. 2), also referred to as the Chairman’s mark. The bill was discussed and amended (i.e., marked up) in committee on April 18th, with the majority of the amendments (all offered by Republicans) voted en bloc. The bill was passed 26-20 on a party-line vote. This bill is the first legislative step towards passing a 2018 Farm Bill to replace the current legislation, which expires on September 30th.

During this Farm Bill cycle, American Farmland Trust’s focus has been on protecting and improving the programs that deliver on its mission to protect farmland, promote environmentally sound farming practices, and keep farmers on the land.

This blog post compares AFT’s priorities for the 2018 Farm Bill to the Chairman’s mark. Items that are included in the mark are noted with a (✓), and items that are partially or not at all included are noted with a (—). Items that were not on AFT’s list of priorities are marked by a (#).

For more information about the politics around the Farm Bill, check out our latest DC Update

Protect FarmlandAgricultural Conservation Easement Program 

The Farm Bill has provided support for farmland protection through agricultural conservation easements since 1990, when Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont sponsored a pilot program to fund agricultural conservation easements. In its current form, the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program is a voluntary federal conservation program implemented by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service that protects agricultural land and conserves wetlands.

ACEP Funding: ✓

AFT’s top priority for the coming Farm Bill is to ensure adequate funding for ACEP at $500 million per year. If the program remains at its $250 million baseline, 93% of farmers and ranchers applying for funds would likely be turned away. AFT commends the Committee’s inclusion of $500 million per year for ACEP funding. ACEP is a vital program that gives funds to farmers and ranchers to permanently protect their land from sprawling development—funds which many farmers and ranchers use to reinvest in their businesses, transition land to the next generation, or improve their stewardship.

Forestland eligibility #

AFT does not support this bill’s addition of 100% forested lands as eligible for ACEP. This addition runs counter to the original purposes of the program and is duplicative of other forestland protection programs. Most troubling is that it will increase competition for already scarce funds and draw funding away from protecting farms and ranches.    

Certification

Across the country, many state and local Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easement programs and agricultural land trusts have decades of experience protecting farmland and ranchland in their communities. This bill strengthens the ability of these experienced entities to use their own terms and conditions to meet the needs of local producers through the certification process.

ALE Plan

This bill removes the requirement to have an ALE plan (a document meant to guide producer practices) from the permanent, legally-enforceable deed terms, avoiding future legal headaches as production practices on eased land change and grow over time.

Contingent Right of Enforcement

The bill clarifies the Secretary’s contingent right of enforcement, assuring landowners that they won't undergo additional inspections by USDA if the easement holder is properly monitoring and enforcing the easement and reporting to USDA.

Protect the most at-risk farmland and ranchland

Cash Match

In many states and counties around the country, PACE programs serve as an invaluable resource and cash match for farmers seeking to use ACEP-ALE funds. However, in areas with no public program to fund farmland protection, the removal of the cash match requirement in the bill means that farmers and ranchers who are willing to donate part of their easement value can move forward in permanently protecting their land through ACEP-ALE.

AGI Limitation

The removal of the Adjusted Gross Income limitation in this bill means that farmland and ranchland can be protected based on its value in perpetuity, rather than based on the situation of a landowner at a given moment in time.  

Buy-Protect-Sell –  

A tool within ACEP called buy-protect-sell, through which a land trust may step in to purchase a piece of property and protect it with an easement so that it can be sold at a lower price to a farmer, was not included in this legislation. AFT will continue to work through the legislative process to ensure that ACEP works effectively to transition land to the next generation.

Protect the future viability of agricultural land under easement

Non-Agricultural Activities

Farming and ranching today looks much different than it did in the past, and producers will need to adapt their practices to remain viable into the future. AFT recognizes that, although ACEP-ALE easements are forever, farming operations are not static and need flexibility to enable operations to continue. AFT supports this bill’s specific allowance of non-agricultural activities, such as agritourism, that do not negatively impact the agricultural use of the land, as a means by which farmers and ranchers can take advantage of new income opportunities.

Ecosystem Service Markets

The option to participate in ecosystem markets that was included in this bill—again, so long as this does not negatively impact the use of the land for active agriculture—is also a win-win for improving farm viability and the environment.

Mineral Development

Finally, AFT supports the inclusion of a specific set of standards to allow mineral development on farmland. Under current law, mineral development is considered on a case-by-case basis. AFT supports the inclusion of boundaries within this bill to allow mineral development when it has limited and localized effects; is not irremediably destructive of significant conservation interests; and would not alter or affect the topography or landscape. AFT believes that this language does not preempt any state prohibitions of mineral development on protected farmland.

Promote Sound Farming Practices

Voluntary conservation programs are vitally important to farmers and ranchers who want to be good stewards of their land. A full toolbox of well-funded conservation programs, which often leverage matching funds from farmers and ranchers themselves, is important to improve our shared natural resources and to avoid the need for more stringent regulations in the future.

Maintain Conservation Title Funding: —

AFT is supportive of the efforts in this bill to find additional funding for ACEP, and to keep the funding spent on working lands and land retirement programs balanced. According to the Congressional Budget Office, spending for the Conservation Title will increase over the five years of the Farm Bill, but long-term ten-year predictions show a decrease. AFT will continue to work to see that Conservation Title funding is maintained.  

Regional Conservation Partnership Program Funding

The Regional Conservation Partnership Program is an innovative, landscape-scale conservation program that brings many partners together to address targeted environmental issues. AFT is supportive of the $250 million of annual mandatory funding for RCPP in this bill.

Quantification of Outcomes in RCPP 

Importantly, the legislation makes changes to key sections of RCPP to improve the information that partners gather during their projects to show their effectiveness. The legislation now directs RCPP partners to quantify their projects’ environmental outcomes in their assessments; requires the Secretary to provide guidance to partners on how to quantify and report on environmental outcomes of their projects; and adds a requirement for the USDA to include the progress being made on quantifying and reporting of environmental outcomes to the report of the Secretary to Congress.

Application Process for RCCP #

Although it was not AFT’s list of priorities, AFT supports the directive for a simplified RCPP application process included in this legislation.

Crop Insurance and Conservation Compliance:

Since the first Conservation Title in the 1985 Farm Bill, conservation compliance has tied payments from the USDA to basic requirements to protect fragile landscapes (highly erodible lands and wetlands). The 2014 Farm Bill re-linked these requirements to crop insurance premium subsidies, and AFT supports the continuation of that requirement in this legislation.

Keep Farmers on the Land

Since AFT’s founding in 1980, the average age of farmers has risen from 50 to 58. Meanwhile, the most recent Census of Agriculture in 2012 showed that the number of beginning farmers decreased 20 percent compared to the five years before. The upcoming Farm Bill includes several important avenues for helping beginning farmers and ranchers access the land that they need to start their operations, and to promote new markets to help them remain viable into the future. 

ACEP Funding

See “Fund ACEP at a minimum of $500 million per year” above.

Buy-Protect-Sell

Because agricultural conservation easements remove the possibility of developing farmland or ranchland, they also remove developers from competition when eased land is sold. As mentioned above, AFT will continue to advocate for buy-protect-sell so that more affordable, protected farmland is available in the future.

USDA Loans

In addition to changes in ACEP, AFT identified two changes to USDA loans that were not included in this bill—increasing the direct farm ownership loan limit to account for high farmland values, and the creation of a loan prequalification process so that beginning farmers and ranchers can act quickly and confidently when they find a property that works for their business.

Commission on Farm Transitions #

Although it was not included on AFT’s list of priorities, AFT supports the establishment of the “Commission on Farm Transitions—Needs for 2050” to study issues around access to land, credit, and risk management tools, as well as to explore potential incentives to facilitate farm transfers. The legislation specifically mentions the study of potential Federal tax incentives to encourage lifetime transfers—such as the capital gains tax incentives proposed by AFT, Land for Good, and the National Young Farmers Coalition.

Training Opportunities

The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program enables agricultural service providers to educate, train, and provide technical support to beginning farmers on ranchers on a variety of topics. The program is one of the “orphan programs” with no baseline to serve as a starting point for funding in future years. BFRDP was reauthorized and again funded at $20 million in mandatory money annually. While AFT’s official position is to provide increased mandatory funding to BFRDP, we do appreciate that funding remains mandatory and was not decreased.

The Chairman's mark makes some helpful changes to the program, specifying that it may be used for farm transfer and succession planning, which will allow service providers to assist older farmers in transitioning their land and businesses to the next generation. 

Farm Viability Grants

This bill does not include a farm viability grant to assist organizations working with farmers and ranchers to further grow and improve their business models.

Market Opportunities

According to a 2016 study, farmers engaged in direct-to-consumer marketing were between six and 10 percentage points more likely to have surviving businesses than farmers who were not. The Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program provides grants to organizations working to improve local food infrastructure such as farmers markets, regional food hubs and value-added production enterprises. It is another “orphan program” that lacks baseline funding to carry forward. While this bill does reauthorize the program, it moves its funding from mandatory to appropriations (meaning the actual funding level would have to be debated and decided in appropriations bills annually).

Moving Forward

Overall, AFT is supportive of these legislative changes, and hopes that many will be included in a timely 2018 Farm Bill. Although AFT is focused on the issues above, we also hope that as the process moves forward, Congress will continue to build on this starting point and maintain the historically bipartisan cooperation between the agricultural, hunger, and conservation communities to ensure final passage. AFT looks forward to working with both sides of the aisle, in both the House and Senate, as the bill moves through the legislative process.