Advocates for local and small-scale farming faced a bleak future as Congress prepared to write a new farm bill. 

The programs that growers depended on to get started or to expand their operations, including one that dates back to the 2014 farm bill, were set to run out of money this year even as consumer interest in the sector continues to grow.  

Compounding the challenge, the programs were traditionally championed by Democrats, and Republicans were in charge of both chambers of Congress. 

So, the program advocates set out to cultivate new relationships with Republicans, including the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Pat Roberts, who once championed the 1996 Freedom to Farm law that sought to reduce government involvement in agriculture. 

“By supporting local and regional food system programs in the 2018 Farm Bill, you can further cement your legacy as a champion for American producers,” a collection of Kansas groups said in a letter to Roberts that was part of the outreach effort. 

The effort paid off, says Wes King, a senior policy specialist with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, because it meant that advocates didn’t have to depend solely on the committee’s ranking Democrat, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, to address their concerns. The groups wanted to make sure Roberts would sign off on including money for their priorities. 

Advocacy groups “did a lot of work in Kansas the last couple of years . . . awareness to the work that has been going on," King said. "In my opinion it seems Roberts' office wasn’t quite aware of the kind of local food work that was being done” in the state, King said. He said Kansas has more local food councils than any other state. 

Pingree headshot

Rep. Chellie Pingree

The Senate bill incorporated key provisions of The Local Food and Regional Market Supply Act (Local FARMS Act) that was sponsored by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, in the Senate and Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, in the House. The Senate farm bill would create a new Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP) that would combine the existing Value-Added Producer Grants Program, which dates back to the 2002 farm bill, and the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program (FMLFPP) and provide them with permanent funding of $60 million per year. 

Authority for the LAMP grants would be expanded to include public-private regional partnerships, a concept borrowed from the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which leverages spending from USDA conservation programs and outside groups to address regional environmental concerns.

The idea is to tap funding from private sources to develop broader, "food-shed level" approaches to developing markets for small farms on a regional basis. A similar effort supported by the Appalachian Regional Commission is already underway to promote agriculture and processing in areas of western Pennsylvania where coal mining jobs have disappeared. 

LAMP also would program new cost-share assistance to help farms pay for upgraded food-safety systems and to become certified as compliant with food-safety standards.

Both VAPG and FMLFPP are set to expire Sept. 30. They are among 39 programs in the 2014 farm bill that do not have any funding baseline starting in October. Neither program would receive any new mandatory funding under the House-passed farm bill, either. 

The Senate bill “does a much better job supporting families and rural communities while helping farmers take advantage of the opportunities of the next five years,” Pingree said.

During the House-Senate conference negotiations on the final version of the farm bill, the advocacy groups will be depending on support from Stabenow and Roberts as well as Brown, who is one of the nine Senate conferees, and Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis, another Republican whose support the groups have cultivated. Pingree isn't a House conferee. 

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Other provisions that would benefit small-scale, local agriculture: 

  • The Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) grant program, which subsidizes local incentives to low-income people to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables, also is set to run out of money Sept. 30, but both bills would provide new funding for it. 

The House bill would earmark $45 million in mandatory funding for FINI grants for fiscal 2019, $50 million for 2020, $55 million for 2021, $60 million for 2022 and $65 million for 2023 and beyond. The Senate bill would provide somewhat less – $50 million a year in mandatory funding, but even that is twice what the program is getting this year. 

Both bills would rename the program for the late Gus Schumacher, a former USDA undersecretary and Massachusetts agriculture commissioner who championed the FINI concept.

  • The Senate bill would require USDA to allow an individual EBT card machine, the devices that read nutrition assistance benefit cards, to be used at more than one farmers market. Existing regulations require an organization to have one device for each market, and each machine can cost $2,000 to set up. “It’s been a big headache for a number of years that we’ve been trying to get USDA to do something about,” said King. 
  • The Senate bill also would provide a boost to the growing urban agriculture movement with a new Urban, Indoor, and Other Emerging Agricultural Production Research, Education and Extension Initiative that would fund $4 million in grants. The Senate bill also would require USDA to create a new Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Forms of Production and to appoint a 15-member advisory committee. The Farm Service Agency would be required to start issuing farm numbers to urban farms, including rooftop and indoor operations. 

Organic agriculture also stands to make gains this year, depending on the outcome of the conference committee. 

  • The Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative, which also is without funding after Sept. 30 under current law, would see its funding doubled by the Senate bill to $40 million in 2019, and would grow to $50 million by 2022. The House bill would fund the program at $30 million a year. 
  • The National Organic Certification Cost Share Program, which assists farmers with the cost of getting certified as organic, would be continued under the Senate bill at the current funding level of $11.5 million per year. 

Both bills include provisions to combat import fraud by increasing tracking of incoming shipments of commodities marketed as organic, with both versions providing $5 million to the National Organic Program for technology improvements.

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