After several months of negotiations, both houses of Congress have passed the 2018 Farm Bill, a sweeping mega-bill that addresses not only not agriculture, but poverty and hunger, conservation and the environment. The President is expected to sign the bill.

More than a year ago, the Foodshed Alliance joined with the Environmental Working Group to connect with New Jersey stakeholders affected by the Farm Bill, including farmers, agricultural groups, land trusts, conservation groups, social service agencies and anti-hunger advocates, so they could form consensus on what they wanted to see in the Farm Bill and to formulate a plan to inform New Jersey legislators of these priorities. The Foodshed Alliance’s executive director, Kendrya Close, and board president, Jake Hunt. as well as other ag and anti-hunger stakeholders visited staffs of the New Jersey Congressional Delegation in Washington and New Jersey to educate them on the importance of passing a fair and equitable Farm Bill. When the Farm Bill failed to pass in September, we continued to monitor progress and urge the New Jersey Congressional Delegation to support and pass a fair and equitable farm bill.

Ultimately, the Senate passed the bill 87-13 while the House passed it 369-47. All of New Jersey’s representatives voted yes, except for Representatives Lance and Frelinghuysen. Representative Payne did not vote.

The 2018 Farm Bill that Congress is a good news/bad news bill. The good news is it is a far cry from the detrimental House version of the bill which was passed along party lines in May that would have drastically cuts funding for programs that support local farmers as well as conservation programs and anti-hunger assistance, not to mention creating new pesticide safety loopholes that threaten farmers, farm workers, and the environment as well as making it possible for 10 percent or more of the nation’s commodity farms to become eligible for unlimited subsidy payments.

In the “good news” category, the 2018 Farm Bill:

  • Maintains funding for SNAP, also known as food stamps, without imposing stringent work requirements. It also establishes a Produce Prescription Program where healthcare providers can give low-income patients vouchers to pay for fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Legalizes industrial hemp (marijuana’s non-psychotropic cousin) production. With literally thousands of uses, hemp may reduce our reliance on the production of “dirty” cotton and offer economic opportunities to New Jersey farmers.
  • Does not grant more power to the Agriculture and Interior departments to clear forests and other public lands, as was initially proposed.
  • Does not lower requirements for Clean Water Act permits to apply of pesticides near certain waterways, or for agency collaboration on pesticides that might threaten endangered species, as was initially proposed.
  • Does not eliminate the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) that supports whole-farm, multi-year, holistic conservation management plans, as was proposed. But the bill did cut several hundred million dollars out of the program and funneled it into Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which reimburses farmers for conservation-oriented farm projects. Overall, the bill maintains funding for programs that help farmers safeguard their soil and protect air and water quality.
  • Increases funding by $2 million a year for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program which provides funding to buy the development rights to agricultural land and wetlands, so that senior farmers can retire without having to sell their land for residential, commercial, or industrial development, and so that farmland can remain affordable for beginning farmers. The bill also grants $300 million in annual mandatory funding for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which addresses farmland loss and water quality, and measures changes in phosphorus and sediment loss.
  • Doubled the annual funding to $50 million for the flagship Organic Research and Extension Initiative program. The bill also provides mandatory funding for the organic certification cost-share program, which incentivizes small and beginning farmers to transition to organic by relieving some of the costs associated with certification.
  • Combines the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program and the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program into a new Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach program, which will fund organizations training the next generation of farmers.
  • Combines the Value-Added Producer Grant program, and the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program, to become a new Local Agriculture Market Program, which will, for the first time, provide permanent funding to organizations working to improve local food infrastructure (farmers markets and regional food hubs).
  • Does not include an amendment that threatened to nullify thousands of state and local laws that promote animal welfare and food and water safety.

The bad news is that the subsidies in the Farm Bill still skew to benefit the rich and powerful. This year’s bill continues to offer enormous subsidies–nearly $900 billion–to large corporations rather than prioritizing the needs of struggling small farmers. Many of these subsidies aren’t even going to rural farmers working the land: The Environmental Working Group has found that nearly 18,000 Americans living in the nation’s largest cities received more than $63 million in farm subsidies in 2015 and 2016.

For the first time, the Farm Bill permits farmers’ children and spouses — without ever having set foot on the farm — to count as “actively engaged” in farming, qualifying them for $125,000 worth of subsidy payments. It also allows nephews, nieces and cousins to receive these payments as well.

While this bill is not perfect, this bipartisan farm bill protects SNAP, invests in local food economies, increases support for a diversity of farmers and supports land and water conservation. Certainly, the bill is far better than it could have been. But is it as good as it should be? Shouldn’t the Farm Bill fund what we want our food system to be?

Back in 2014, in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post, food activists Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, Ricardo Salvador and Olivier De Schutter, called for a National Food Policy to build a food system that will ensure access to green, fair, nutritious, affordable food for all Americans, based on these values:

  • all Americans have access to healthful food;
  • farm policies support our public health and environmental objectives;
  • our food supply is free of toxic bacteria, chemicals and drugs;
  • production and marketing of our food are done transparently;
  • the food industry pays a fair wage to those it employs;
  • food marketing sets children up for healthful lives by instilling in them a habit of eating real food;
  • animals are treated with compassion and attention to their well-being;
  • the food system’s carbon footprint is reduced, and the amount of carbon sequestered on farmland is increased;
  • the food system is sufficiently resilient to withstand the effects of climate change.

Given these values, the Farm Bill falls short. Sure, it is not as bad as it could have been. But should we settle for that?