The 2018 Farm Bill—and what it means to New England

Standing at his Grant Family Farm booth at the Marblehead Farmers Market one brilliant Saturday last October, Chris Grant looks puzzled when asked what he hopes to get from the 2018 Farm Bill. Grant, who sells eggs, chicken and vegetables from his Essex farm, is active in the Massachusetts Farm Bureau’s Young Farmers and Ranchers committee. With a degree from University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Stockbridge School of Agriculture, he is well versed in farm issues in New England and elsewhere. But the 2018 national Farm Bill? Not so much.

Most New Englanders take little notice of the Farm Bill. Even small farmers here, with their crops of kale, artisan lettuce, chickens and a few pigs, stare blankly when asked about the bill. How does it affect them? Isn’t it exclusively concerned with commodity payments for Midwestern farmers with acres and acres of corn, wheat or soybeans?

Grant believes that more support for specialty crops—the designation for fruits, vegetables, tree nuts and floriculture—would make sense in the Farm Bill, especially as Americans are urged to eat more of them. But to him, and to most New England farmers, it’s apparent that the emphasis of the Farm Bill is to support commodity crops—wheat, corn, soybeans, cotton and the like—and nutritional aid benefits, called SNAP. Even crop insurance, which was extended to specialty crops in 2014 but is primarily used by large farmers growing commodities, isn’t feasible for his small operation. So as Grant chats with a woman buying eggs and seeking information on his free-range chickens, he’s more concerned with marketing directly to his customers than on what’s going on in Washington.

Contrary to what urban New Englanders might think, the omnibus Farm Bill (a multi-year law that oversees many areas) does actually impact the lives and well-being of many of us in cities and towns as well as rural areas. The bill, which supports conservation, research, rural development, direct marketing, foreign trade and the SNAP program (previously called food stamps) as well as crop supports and insurance, is up for renewal in 2018. As lawmakers deliberate, advocates for nutritional aid, farmers, organic farming and conservation weigh in.

Although there were hearings and discussions through the fall and early winter on the 2018 Farm Bill, debates on the budget and government shutdown garnered most of the attention. In January, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue released the department’s legislative principles for the Farm Bill. Although most of the principles are general, there is an emphasis on a “fiscally responsible” Farm Bill and on work and “self-sufficiency” in food aid, an echo of the administration’s push for work requirements for other forms. One controversial addition by the Trump Adminstration to its proposals for the 2019 budget is a “Harvest Box” of staples such as beans, peanut butter and shelf-stable milk that would substitute for half of the funding given SNAP recipients. [aa1] The fate of this idea is uncertain with advocates and others complaining about logistics and that the box would not contain fresh fruits, vegetables, or meats. The House Agriculture Committee led by Representative K. Michael Conaway (R-TX) is promising that the 2018 Farm Bill will be finished on time.

Meanwhile, some issues of interest to New Englanders stand out:

Support for specialty crops. Mary Kay Thatcher, a senior director of the American Farm Bureau Federation, and others point to a big push to fund more research in specialty crops as well as other programs that would aid farmers in our region.
Direct marketing approaches. One promising initiative in New England is called the Local FARMS act, backed by Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and others, that aims to increase direct marketing efforts for farmers and to use Rural Development grants and other farm programs in such areas as food safety, nutrition outreach to seniors, veterans and schools, improving infrastructure in local meat and poultry processing and for conservation efforts.
Organic initiatives. Representative Ann Kuster (D-NH), among others, is pushing the Homegrown Organic Act of 2017, which suggests changes to existing voluntary agricultural conservation programs to help farmers who want to transition to organic, a field with rising demand and short supply.
Support for new farmers. In October, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition released its recommendations for the Farm Bill. Its priorities begin by urging support for new farmers, especially as older farmers retire and 100 million acres of farmland are predicted to change hands over the next five years. That would include access to farmland and education, equitable access to credit and federal crop insurance and work on conservation. The access to land is especially important in New England, where land is scarce, expensive and at high risk of commercial and residential development. The coalition also recommends work on expanding markets for farmers and getting local, fresh food to schools and the poor.

Although its name would imply the Farm Bill concentrates on farming, the bulk of its funds go to SNAP (food stamps), which accounts for as much as 70% or more of the money allotted. It is always a controversial part of the Farm Bill, and this year is no exception. Some conservatives see cutting these payments as a way to trim the national budget and provide revenue for tax cuts and other proposals. Others are pushing for work requirements to be incorporated. The history of why farm interests and SNAP are intertwined began in 1973 as a way to ensure that farm bills passed when fewer and fewer voters and their legislative representatives lived on farms. Although there are continuing efforts by the Freedom Caucus and other conservatives to separate out this nutrition program from the Farm Bill, neither Democrats nor Republicans want to do that, says Thatcher of the Farm Bureau, for fear that urban legislators would not pass a Farm Bill benefiting rural constituents.

For advocates like Ellen Vollinger of Food Research & Action Center, the problem is not just that SNAP funding may be cut, but that there’s already not enough money in the program. The original budget proposed by President Trump in May 2017 suggested a $193 billion reduction over 10 years and a new state cost-sharing requirement that would reduce both benefits and eligibility. Such attempts are viewed with alarm, she says, because SNAP aid is already so low. “To help struggling people, states can support work by offering real job training and job slots, not just creating time limits when they’re unable to find a job.”

Splitting out SNAP from the Farm Bill and giving states authority could harm both constituencies, Vollinger and others believe. “Farm community stakeholders are taking it very seriously that food nutrition and farmers are connected,” she says, a view also expressed by Thatcher. Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA), who is on the House Agriculture Committee, has called SNAP “our first line of defense against hunger” and has been resolute in affirming its importance in the Farm Bill.

One connection point between farmers and SNAP recipients in Massachusetts has been the Healthy Initiatives Program (HIP), begun as a pilot program in Hampden County and later partly funded through the Farm Bill. Starting last April, purchases by SNAP recipients for fruits and vegetables at farmers markets, farm stands and CSAs were matched by the program. When a recipient uses his or her EBT (electronic benefit transfer) card to buy some apples, for example, the amount of the purchase goes back on their card.

The program has proved so popular both for the SNAP recipients that in February, the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance sent out notices saying the program would be suspended from April to July because the funding had run out. This was a blow to farmers who had already factored in HIP in their planning and seed purchases.

“The HIP program brought a lot of additional EBT business at Copley [Square Farmers Market] and the Boston Public Market,” says Chris Kurth of Siena Farms in Sudbury. He calls it a “creative program” that benefits both sides.

It’s a bright spot, says Kurth, who otherwise says he’s “on his own,” since subsidies, supports and even crop insurance in the Farm Bill don’t benefit his specialty crop business. With 50 acres of vegetables, Kurth self-insures with marketing, by diversifying his crops and trying to broaden his retail base. Sure, he thinks governmental programs should benefit all farmers, but after 20 years of farming in New England, he’s not holding his breath.

The HIP program, with its obvious bonus benefits for nutrition for low-income and senior citizens, gave out $3.2 million in incentives in its first season, according to the Department of Transitional Assistance letter. Hopefully, says Winton Pitcoff of the Massachusetts Food Systems Collaborative, supplemental funds can be found to cover the shortfall and keep the program going without interruption. The program was funded through March, 2020, says Pitcoff, but after that more funding will have to be found. Though many states have programs aimed at solving food insecurity for SNAP recipients, Massachusetts is the first to have a statewide incentive program and the only state utilizing EBT cards, says Frank Martinez Nocito, HIP project director at the Department of Transitional Assistance.   

Martinez Nocito and others involved with HIP sound almost giddy when discussing how the HIP initiative has worked. Use of HIP has been “four times higher than we anticipated,” he says of the first seven months since the initiative started. It’s a win-win for both SNAP users and farmers, adding: “They understand the connection.”

By November 2017, the program had distributed more than $2.3 million in incentives with more than 200 Massachusetts farms and markets were involved. Nearly 30,000 households had participated in buying fruits and vegetables through HIP, according to the Massachusetts Food System Collaborative. “It’s a great success,” says Winton Pitcoff, collaborative director, adding that the idea that SNAP recipients don’t care about nutrition and that sales by local farms have reached saturation were both shown to be fallacies.

“What’s happening is part of a national movement,” says Kate Fitzgerald, a national food policy consultant. “That’s pretty exciting,” she adds, “because agriculture is one of those places where you really can get bipartisan coalition.” She goes on to say that HIP’s success thus far could demonstrate that combining farmers’ goals with nutritional needs for the less fortunate can benefit the greater good.

Despite this optimism, the reality, according to Thatcher and others, is that there’s little chance that funding will increase in the 2018 Farm Bill. When the 2014 Farm Bill was enacted, the farm economy for commodities was strong, and farm interests agreed to a $30 billion cut. The scenario is much different now: The big-farm economy—including dairy farmers in the Northeast—is struggling, and there will be pressure for more help in all sectors, but without the funding to accommodate it.

Still, young farmers like Grant can hope. “I think any step forward helping entry-level farmers would be good,” he says, either to buy land or at least make sure that it’s not developed. The current USDA Farm Service Agency cap on loans is $300,000, which he says, doesn’t go far in New England’s pricey real estate market.

Grant sees that this could be a way to aid those in local farming and also to preserve what’s left of the rural character of the region. In a commentary that just might illustrate why the 2018 Farm Bill is so important to all of New England, Grant describes several small plots of land near his home farm that he rented for vegetable production a few years ago. When he drove by recently, he saw a whole new neighborhood of tightly spaced houses had been built there, changing the character—and the landscape—forever.

“It happens so fast,” he says ruefully.

ALISON ARNETT is a freelance writer, focusing on food and agriculture. She formerly was the restaurant critic and food writer for the Boston Globe, and an editor.