Chelsea and Bryan Phipps (right), landowners in Garfield County, MT, along with Sue Fitzgerald (left), Garfield County NRCS district conservationist, record plant species in June 2017. The Phipps participated in both the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). The CSP is one of the programs potentially affected by the farm bill. (Photo by USDA via Flickr.)

Senate and House negotiators are moving to a conference committee to hammer out a final version of the federal farm bill before the existing law expires Sept. 30. The House and Senate versions of the bill contain significant differences in nutrition, conservation and rural development programs.  

The House version of the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018 (H.R. 2) passed June 21 along partisan lines after it was initially defeated in May. The House vote was extremely close, narrowly passing the second round in a 213-211 vote. All Democrats opposed the House bill, primarily because of cuts and work requirements for participants in nutrition programs. 

The Senate, a week later, passed their version of the replacement bill with a strong bipartisan 85-11 vote. The Senate bill maintains the structure of current farm bill for the most part, while also providing mandatory funding for many programs canceled by the House bill.  

Some key differences between the House and Senate farm bills related to rural economic development include:  

  • Local Food Programs: The House bill zeroes out mandatory funding for several programs that support increased access to locally produced foods: the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program, Value-Added Producer Grants, and National Organic Certification Cost Share Program. The Senate bill retains the farmers markets and value-added programs by creating and funding the $60 million per year Local Agriculture Market Program. The Senate bill also retains organic certification program’s funding at current levels.  
  • Clean Energy Programs: The Senate bill retains the current Energy Title of the farm bill, a section the House bill terminates. One critical component of the energy section is the Renewable Energy for America Program, which provides loans and grants to farmers and small businesses in rural communities for energy efficiency and solar, wind and other renewable energy projects. The Senate bill funds the renewable energy program at $50 million per year, while the House bill terminates mandatory funding for the program.  
Some of the 240 solar panels at Seldom Rest Farms north of Myerstown, PA, in April 2011. The farm maintains a crop, herd of sheep and 17,000 hens. The Hens are kept in a two story chicken house and produce approximately 2.5 million chicks each year. To supplement their electrical needs, they chose a contractor who knew about United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Energy for America program (REAP) grants and helped them through the application process. REAP’s future is in question as the House and Senate hash out differences in the farm bill. (Photo source: USDA via WikiCommons)
  • Conservation Programs: The House draft cuts total conservation spending by nearly $1 billion over the next decade, while the Senate version of the bill maintains overall conservation funding. In a major difference, the House bill eliminates a conservation program (the nation’s largest in acreage), the Conservation Stewardship Program. The Senate version makes some changes to the program but continues the underlying approach of funding conservation practices on working lands. The House bill raises the national acreage cap on Conservation Reserve Program acres to 29 million acres during the next five years, while the Senate bill increases the acres in the program to 26 million acres. Additional details on the specific conservation program differences between the House and Senate are available from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
  • Commodity Payment Reforms for Farmers: The Senate bill amends farm support programs to prohibit non-farmers from receiving commodity subsidy payments. The amendment, sponsored by Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA), was included while other attempts to reform farm commodity and crop insurance programs were not successful. The House bill does not include these commodity payment reforms.  
  • Rural Innovation Stronger Economy (RISE) Grants: Modeled after Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)’s Rural Jobs and Investment Act, the Senate version contains RISE grants of $500,000 to $2 million each to locally-driven rural jobs accelerator partnerships made up of entrepreneurs, local leaders, investment organizations and training programs. Funding would be used to create rural jobs through investment in economic development expertise, network coordination, research and development partnerships and local infrastructure needs. The House bill does not include the RISE grant program. 
  • Additional changes from Rural Jobs and Investment Act– This bipartisan proposal also expands the use of USDA’s Community Facilities Program to invest in business incubators, makerspace and job training centers to provide additional resources for communities to support their entrepreneurs. The Community Facilities Program provides direct loans, loan guarantees, and grants to improve public services and public facilities in rural communities. In addition, the Gillibrand amendment expands access to capital for rural entrepreneurs by encouraging investment to rural areas. Currently, the USDA has one program to help address these capital challenges, the Rural Business Investment Program, but this program is limited in the types of industries that it can invest in, as well as the amount of capital it can attract. Gillibrand’s amendment would change the program to allow investments across all industries, encouraging more capital to be invested in rural entrepreneurs. The House bill does not include either of these provisions. 
  • Rural Broadband—Both the House and Senate bills contain significant investments in funding for high-speed internet in rural communities. The Senate farm bill enacts restrictions on the USDA’s existing RUS Broadband Loan Program, which would help target limited program funding to areas of high need while also streamlining program paperwork. The House bill does not contain these provisions.  
  • Undersecretary for Rural Development—The Senate bill contains a provision that would reverse the Trump administration’s decision to drop the position of Undersecretary of Rural Development at USDA in favor of an Undersecretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural affairs. The House bill does not include that pushback against the current administration’s approach to USDA re-organization.  
  • Interstate Commerce/Local Government Authority— The House bill contains the Protect Interstate Commerce Act (PICA), introduced by Representative Steve King (R-Iowa 4th). The provision would prohibit state and local governments from adding any restrictions on agriculture and food production if the product is offered for sale in another state. Critics say that PICA would strip states and local governments of their ability to regulate industrial agriculture in their communities. The Senate bill does not contain Representative King’s PICA provision. 

The House has already named their farm bill conference committee slate to negotiate a compromise version of the House and Senate bills. The House contingent has 28 Republicans and 19 Democrats. House Agriculture Committee Chair Mike Conaway (R-TX) will lead the Republican caucus in negotiations, while ranking member Collin Peterson (D-MN) will lead the minority party.   

The Senate has yet to report their bill to conference committee and name their participants, though they are expected to take that action in coming days. The conference committee will negotiate a merged version of the two bills. Then it is expected to send that bill back to the House and Senate for final passage.  

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