At a time when more and more Americans have come to believe that Washington is hopelessly mired in gridlock and delay, the U.S. Senate passage on June 21 of the Agriculture, Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012, commonly known as the 2012 Farm Bill, by a strong bipartisan majority vote of 64 to 35 is proof that the Senate can pull together to do what is right for America. The 2012 Farm Bill is a comprehensive agriculture reform bill that saves taxpayers more than $23 billion dollars, supports more than 16 million American jobs, and makes important strides in conservation and wildlife protection.
Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the most senior member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, again made sure that Vermonters had a close seat at the table as the bill was being written. "This bipartisan bill is a product of debate, compromise and thoughtful consideration by all the members of the Senate. I am proud that the 2012 Farm Bill is also a jobs and reform bill that will spur economic growth, support conservation, improve nutrition for millions, and have a positive impact on the lives of Vermonters and all Americans," he said.
Many aspects of the 2012 Farm Bill are important to Vermonters. Here are just a few of the highlights:
The Senate's Farm Bill includes new dairy provisions to replace the MILC safety net. The new approach, endorsed by major dairy producers in Vermont, creates a federally subsidized margin insurance program. A key element of this new program is a "market stabilization" provision that would discourage over-supply of milk. "This new safety net approach will help us break the harmful cycle of rollercoastering milk prices, when supply and demand get too far out of synch," said Leahy.
Forest Legacy Program -- Senator Leahy led the effort to defeat an amendment that would have repealed this successful program. To date, the program has conserved more than 2.2 million acres of working forest lands in 49 states and plays a role in sustaining rural economies and essential ecosystems. In Vermont, the program has protected 77,714 acres of forestland through projects such as the Northern Green Mountain Linkage project, Eden Forest project, and the West Fairlee Community Forest. The program operates at no cost to taxpayers and is funded instead through a small percentage of receipts from oil drilling on public lands.
Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) -- The 2012 Farm Bill funds EQIP -- another program authored earlier by Senator Leahy -- at a sufficient level to allow it to continue to protect the lakes and streams of Vermont. EQIP helps farmers prevent agricultural runoff, such as manure. Lake Champlain has been plagued by blue-green algae blooms, and EQIP helps farmers control the nitrogen and phosphorus runoff which contribute to these blooms.
Community Forest and Open Space Program -- This program has helped Vermont preserve threatened forestland. Its continued inclusion in the 2012 Farm Bill ensures that more community forest projects will follow. One example of this program is the Hogback Community Forest in Bristol, which includes one of Vermont's most beautiful scenic byways.
Regional Equity Program -- This program, which Senator Leahy initiated in the 2002 Farm Bill, helps bring more Farm Bill conservation resources to Vermont and other Northeastern states. The 2012 Farm Bill extends this program so that Vermont and other small states receive a fair distribution of USDA conservation funds. "By guaranteeing that each state receives a minimum share of program funding, the Regional Equity Program ensures that no state is left out in the cold and that Vermont will continue to get its fair share of conservation dollars," said Leahy.
Agricultural Lands Easement (ALE) Program -- The 2012 Farm Bill combines the Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program and the Grassland Reserve Program to create the new Agricultural Lands Easement Program. ALE will operate through state and local partners to provide permanent protection for working agricultural lands. The purpose of the ALE Program was changed to include "the promotion of agricultural viability for future generations." This change was part of the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act that Senator Leahy worked to incorporate into the 2012 Farm Bill. "This is a big step forward toward ensuring that beginning farmers and ranchers are able to participate in the program and that the program itself aims to keep working farms in business over the long term," said Leahy.
Compliance for Crop Insurance -- The longstanding conservation compliance provisions of the Farm Bill were extended to cover those individuals and entities that benefit from federal crop insurance programs. Landowners that are not in compliance with the Farm Bill's conservation rules are disqualified from receiving federal payments unless and until they correct their violations. Senator Leahy supported the amendment that extended conservation compliance beyond those receiving direct payments or funds from conservation programs to all recipients of federal crop insurance. This change will help protect wetlands from being drained and deter tilling on highly erodible soils. In Vermont, participation in the current dairy support system already requires compliance with conservation programs, which has resulted in significant improvements to Vermont's water quality and a reduction in environmental damage. Changing the 2012 Farm Bill in the same way will widen participation, protecting more land from habitat loss and environmental degradation.
Hunger Safety Net
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- With so many Americans struggling to put food on the table, nutrition assistance such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and emergency assistance programs have become even more crucial.
In Vermont, recent surveys show that one in five children and nearly one in seven households are food insecure, leaving families relying on federal and state programs such as SNAP (renamed 3SquaresVT in Vermont), WIC, and the federal School Lunch and Breakfast Programs. Enrollment in 3SquaresVT has nearly tripled over the last decade, with 96,000 Vermonters now receiving benefits.
Senator Leahy joined in defeating amendments that would have placed additional burdens on hungry families and eliminated otherwise eligible families from receiving SNAP benefits. It is a proven fact that these benefits have made a difference in the economic standing of Vermonters. In 2010, 3SquaresVT benefits, when added to income, lifted 26 percent of 3SquaresVT households out of poverty.
The 2012 Farm Bill contains initiatives to encourage better health, increased access to local foods, improved nutrition for children and seniors, and support for programs that promote self-sufficiency and food security in the nation's low-income communities. Specifically these provision include $100 million in mandatory funding over five years to encourage purchases of fruits and vegetables by SNAP consumers at retail outlets, including farmers markets; allowing SNAP recipients to use their benefits to purchase a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share; and a pilot program to support established farm to school programs.
Organics and Local Food
Crop Insurance for Organic Products -- Much of the $23 billion in savings in the 2012 Farm Bill comes from the elimination of direct payments to commodity producers and the creation of a broad crop insurance program. Senator Leahy supported an amendment, which passed by a vote of 63 to 36, that enhanced crop insurance for organic products. Organic farmers today are forced to accept lower conventional prices when indemnity payments are made, rather than the higher average price that organic products typically yield. This amendment will help to level the playing field by allowing for organic price elections when indemnity payments are made by crop insurance companies. This change in the 2012 Farm Bill will ensure that all farmers, including organic farmers, are compensated fairly for their losses.
Organic Certification Cost-Share Program -- The 2012 Farm Bill includes mandatory funding for the highly effective organic certification cost-share program. This program provides organic producers with 75 percent of, or a maximum of $750, toward the cost of their organic certification. "Organic food is one of the fastest growing sectors of the agricultural economy. This program will keep it that way," said Leahy. Senator Leahy helped defeat attempts to eliminate this program, which has had a significant impact on the Nation's small farmers.
Enforcement and Integrity -- Senator Leahy -- the father of the highly successful national organic standards and labeling program -- led an effort to ensure the integrity of the organic seal and the National Organic Program. New provisions in the 2012 Farm Bill will enforce standards and accredit certifiers. The 2012 Farm Bill also includes mandatory funding for a technology upgrade that will modernize the National Organic Program's organic database technology systems.
Organic Data Initiatives Program -- The 2012 Farm Bill continues the organic data initiatives program at USDA for important national data collection about the organic sector. The bill also directs the Secretary of Agriculture to collect data on the production and marketing of locally or regionally produced agricultural food products, facilitate interagency collaboration and data sharing on programs related to local and regional food systems, and evaluate the success of current local promotion programs.
Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program -- The 2012 Farm Bill expands this program which has yielded widespread success and participation throughout Vermont. With more and more American's depending on their local farmers market to buy healthy and local food and Vermont's Farm to Plate initiative, funding for the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program is crucial. Senator Leahy spoke out against, and helped to successfully oppose, an amendment that would have eliminated this popular program. "The Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program results in improved local food hubs and supports farm to plate initiatives like the ones that are thriving in Vermont," he said. One success story among many is Vermont Farm-to-School Inc., in Newport. In 2011, this organization received funds from the program to launch a new mobile farmers' market.
State Rural Development Councils -- Senator Leahy offered an amendment to continue the authorization for State Rural Development Councils in the 2012 Farm Bill. The Senate passed the Leahy amendment with bipartisan support. Reauthorization of these effective and efficient councils will allow them to continue their important work of strengthening rural communities in Vermont and across the country.
REAP Zones -- Senator Leahy fought to continue the Rural Economic Area Partnership (REAP) Zone initiative that has been so successful in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom. REAP Zones set up collaborative and citizen-led efforts to enhance economic development. This effort is a great model for building a new rural economy that other rural areas are sure to emulate.
Rural Broadband Deployment -- The 2012 Farm Bill reauthorizes the Rural Utilities Service broadband loan program and creates a new broadband grant program that targets un-served and underserved regions. In the past, these low-interest loans have helped telecommunications companies, such as Topsham Telephone and VTel, to expand broadband to rural communities. Reauthorization in the 2012 Farm Bill ensures that this work will continue and more and more communities will be connected.
Reauthorization of the Northern Border Regional Commission -- The Northern Border Regional Commission was created in the last Farm Bill with the advocacy of Senator Patrick Leahy. Since being funded for the first time two years ago, Vermont organizations have received more than $500,000 to spur economic development and job growth in Vermont's six northern-most counties. The Farm Bill reauthorizes the program for five years and includes administrative improvements that will make the program more effective and efficient.
Other -- Agriculture
Agricultural Management Assistance (AMA) -- Senator Leahy fought for USDA efforts of particular importance and interest to Vermont's organic farmers, speaking out against an amendment that would have eliminated funding for the Agricultural Management Assistance program. AMA helps producers develop sustainable practices that protect their farmland and ensure that the health of our shared water systems is protected. This is the type of program is especially important when major storms, such as Tropical Storm Irene, devastate a landscape, erode soil and spread contaminants into the water system. AMA will help lessen the toll of natural disasters like Irene. It is a program that will pay long-term dividends and greatly reduce future mitigation costs.
Non-Insured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (NAP) -- The 2012 Farm Bill includes Senator Leahy's "Buy up" provision that will patch the hole in the safety net for producers that are producing non-insurable crops, often fruits and vegetables. For these producers, the level of risk protection they are currently provided under NAP only protects them from losses that could put them out of business. NAP was invaluable to Vermont producers after the devastating flooding of Tropical Strom Irene, but it would have been ineffective for less cataclysmic losses. Senator Leahy's NAP Buy up provision will allow the program to continue to offer the catastrophic level of coverage, but also give producers the opportunity to elect higher coverage levels, which they would pay a premium for based upon the value of their production.
Specialty Crop Block Grants -- Specialty Crop Block Grants saw a healthy increase in funding in the 2012 Farm Bill. This program enhances the competitiveness of specialty groups by promoting local and regional farm and food system specialty crop development within each state. These grants can be used to enhance state and regional marketing programs, direct to consumer and direct to store marketing, access to specialty crops for low-income consumers, food hubs, and new farmer specialty crop development.