The U.S. Farm Bill is up for renewal this year, and advocates for interests as diverse as organic agriculture, renewable energy resources and children's nutrition programs are generally pleased with the direction in which talks are heading.
Historically, the Farm Bill, last renewed in 2002, has favored large subsidies for commodity crop production. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture has faced increasing pressure from both small farmers and the World Trade Organization over these policies in recent years, and the agency recently unveiled recommendations for the 2007 bill that could begin steering government support in a different direction.
Notably, the proposals include $7.8 billion for creating a new Environmental Quality Incentives Program and $1.6 billion in renewable energy research funding. The agency has also said it would like to see $5 billion in new funding for specialty crop producers, with the money spent primarily on the purchase of more fresh fruits and vegetables for food assistance programs and public school lunches.
The USDA's proposal also suggests that the agency should begin collecting and publishing wholesale prices and import/export data for organic crops, and that the 2007 Farm Bill should include a small increase in cost-share support for current organic farmers.
The 10-year, $61 million budget suggested for these initiatives, however, is far short of the funding that groups such as the Organic Trade Association are hoping for, and industry advocates have expressed frustration that the proposals do not include money for programs that would help conventional farmers transition to organic production.
“We need some really good technical assistance and mentoring for farmers as they decide to go organic, because they don't always understand all of the factors that are involved,” explained Caren Wilcox, executive director of the OTA. “Basically what they do now is go to other organic farmers and ask for their time and help.”
The OTA would like to see funds used to better equip agencies within the USDA, such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Farm Service Agency. The group is also seeking funding to ensure that existing organic programs will be able to keep pace with the industry's projected growth during the next decade. Recent developments, including the creation of a new Congressional Subcommittee on Horticulture and Organic Agriculture, will help give a larger voice to these issues as Congress begins writing the bill in the coming months.
In general, though, advocates for small farms and sustainability issues say the tone of the debate over federal farm policies is changing.
“There's a much stronger dialogue for healthy foods, healthier diets — and a better safety net for farmers,” said Bill Kuckuck, executive vice president of the American Farmland Trust. “They're addressing new market development in specialty crops, new research toward integrated pest management, and issues such as deteriorating infrastructure that acknowledge the needs of agriculture in a market-oriented environment.”