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Farm Bill Update
Advocates and U.S. congressional leaders have been working to reauthorize the federal Farm Bill for over a year. Many of its policies and programs support local farmers, preserve agricultural lands, and ensure access to healthy and fresh foods. Following weeks of bipartisan efforts, the U.S. Senate in a 64 to 35 vote passed the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012 (S. 3240), more commonly known as the 2012 Farm Bill in late June 2012. The GO TO 2040 section on promoting sustainable local food addresses some of the livability issues in the proposed 2012 Farm Bill, and understanding the policies set forth in the bill will help link federal goals to local actions. The omnibus legislation is now headed to the U.S. House of Representatives, where they will craft their own version.
The Farm Bill sets policies for agriculture, nutrition, conservation, and forestry issues in the U.S. It requires reauthorization every five years, and the current Farm Bill, passed in 2008, is set to expire this year. The first Farm Bill was passed in 1933 in response to low corn prices, soil erosion, drought, and national hunger. The current Farm Bill covers commodities, conservation, trade, nutrition, farm credit, rural development, agricultural research, forestry, energy, specialty crops and horticulture, crop insurance, and other programs. One of the more politicized issues is crop subsidies, which were set up to provide a safety net for farmers. Many believe that the subsidies often end up in the pockets of wealthy farmers, not smaller or beginning farmers, and the issue divides the farming community. Another area of political scrutiny is the food-assistance programs, specifically the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) formally known as food stamps. These constitute the largest portion (78 percent) of the budgetin the proposed 2012 Farm Bill.
Land Conservation Policy
The Farm Bill has historically contained a number of programs aimed at retiring marginal farmland and installing conservation practices. These programs generally set land aside for 10 to 30 years and in some cases permanently retire it from farming. The programs generally share the costs of conservation practices with farmers, provide rental payments, and may require a nonpermanent easement on the land. The size of these programs means that the Farm Bill is actually the largest source of federal funding for land conservation. In Illinois, these programs are used more heavily downstate, but they remain an important part of conservation in the Chicago area. For example, almost 5,000 acres in northeastern Illinois are enrolled in the Conservation Reserve or Conservation Reserve Enhancement programs. In the proposed 2012 Farm Bill, the maximum acreage allowed in the program has been reduced from 32 to 25 million acres, but the program would be revised to prioritize the most erodible lands.
The 1996 Farm Bill introduced a program devoted to preserving farming as a use -- the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRLPP), which is used to purchase development rights on farmland. This program has been important locally. In combination with riverboat gaming revenues, Kane County has used the FRLPP extensively in its farmland protection program. The current Senate bill proposes to combine the FRLPP and the Grassland Reserve Program into an Agricultural Lands Easement Program with funding of $1.4 billion over 10 years, which is essentiallythe baseline budget from the FRLPP.
Food & Nutrition Policy
One of the key policy areas in the Farm Bill is nutrition and food assistance programs for low-income families. SNAP provides benefits to help people in low-income households purchase food. In fiscal year 2011, federal expenditures for SNAP were $78 million, making it the largest funding block in the current bill. According to the Washington Post, Republicans assert that this hefty price tag is wrought with fraud and waste. The bill has some new provisions to close loopholes and make reductions to tighten the SNAP programs and oversight.
The Farm Bill also reauthorizes programs for farmers' markets and local food efforts and increases access to fresh and healthy foods. The Farmers Market Promotion Program was expanded to also provide assistance in developing local food system infrastructure and central regional food development centers. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) awarded Faith in Placeand Growing Home, Inc., grants to support development of regional and urban food systems in Chicago. Through Farm Bill grants administered by the USDA, both organizations are working to eliminate food deserts, as recommended in GO TO 2040.
The proposed 2012 Farm Bill has many links to the work being done in our region. Its policies can influence how land is protected and how land is used to promote the production of local foods systems. During GO TO 2040's development, residents and leaders in northeastern Illinois expressed a strong interest in local food issues, as reflected in the plan's recommendations to:
- Increase local food production, preserve farmland, and stimulate demand for local agricultural products.
- Improve access to healthy, fresh food by linking local food policy with food assistance programs and expanding the types of food retail outlets that accept food assistance benefits.
- Increase understanding and awareness through regional coordination, research, and dissemination of information.
Implementation of GO TO 2040 recommendations related to local food include a number of initiatives that are underway:
- Three projects in CMAP's Local Technical Assistance program address local food systems. Two projects are intended to strengthen local food systems in Kane and Lake Counties, and the Green and Healthy Neighborhoods project for Chicago's Woodlawn, Washington Park, and Englewood neighborhoods includes a focus on urban agriculture.
- Comprehensive plan guidance in the form of a local food chapter outline.
- A technical resource to assist municipalities with development of a local food ordinance.
- Production of a brief video that expresses the benefits and economic potential of strengthening local food systems and a number of related challenges and opportunities, which will debut later this summer.
GO TO 2040 also recommended raising awareness by providing data, research, training, and information to help support local efforts. The proposed 2012 Farm Bill also recognizes this need for increased data and information. It would direct the USDA Secretary to collect data on the production of locally or regionally produced agricultural foods and would facilitate interagency collaboration.
The clock is ticking on passage of a new Farm Bill. The House of Representative Committee on Agriculture is scheduled to meet on July 11, 2012, to take up the 2012 Farm Bill. Once the House completes its work, the two bills will be reconciled in a Conference Committee before being sent to the Congress and the President for final approval. Illinois has three representatives on the House Agricultural committee that located in the CMAP region: Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Winfield), Rep. Tim Johnson (R-Urbana), and Rep. Bobby Schilling (R-Colona).