Looking Ahead to the Farm Bill: Winter Policy Update

      Posted On: January 18, 2012

The advent of 2012 heralds the second session of the 112th Congress, guaranteed to be a busy time for farmers market advocates.

The full House and Senate Agriculture Committees will begin consideration of the 2012 Farm Bill in February, as current program provisions expire on September 30th of this year.  Key programs for farmers markets include the Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP), Specialty Crop Block Grants (SCBG), Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program, provisions concerning the use of SNAP (formerly food stamps), and WIC in farmers markets. 

Last fall, the four leaders of the Congressional Agriculture Committees drafted a Farm Bill proposal for the Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (AKA the Super Committee) and although the draft fizzled with the failure of the deficit reduction effort, the House and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairs are expected to use it as the starting point for deliberations this spring. While none of the proposal language was made public, it reportedly called for $23 billion in spending cuts over ten years while including increased funding for farmers market and local and regional food system programs.   While some groups referred to the effort as a “Secret Farm Bill” written behind closed doors, it was, at least in part, an attempt to minimize deeper cuts to farm and nutrition programs proposed by conservative House Republicans.

Although the agriculture committee leadership has stated that it would very much like to get a Farm Bill written and passed by September 2012, political acrimony, election year pressures, time limits, and funding uncertainty created by across-the-board budget cuts beginning in 2013 make it unlikely.  It is possible that Congress will pass an extension of the current legislation and the bill will be taken up again after the elections.

What does this mean for farmers markets?  There will be key opportunities in 2012 to promote the many benefits of farmers markets and the importance of federal support for their growth and improved ability to serve communities.  Congress will hold informational hearings and staff will be looking for proven, cost effective ideas that meet the needs of farmers and consumers.  Several excellent bills have already been introduced, including the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act (S. 3286 and H. 1773), and the Expanding Access to Farmers Markets Act (S. 1593), and there will be more worthy of support.

Educating lawmakers about the impacts of markets in their communities is a crucial civic responsibility for those who care about seeing farmers markets thrive, and Senators and Representatives need to be hearing about them regularly — from home as well as in their Washington offices.  Improving public policy is a long-term effort, and one in which we cannot afford to wait until the last minute to engage.

In the coming weeks, FMC will be making available an FMPP Fact Sheet for its members, as well as other policy education tools, including a list of Farm Bill priorities.  On February 10th, FMC hosts its annual Board Retreat in Washington, DC, and many board members have volunteered their personal Friday afternoons to visiting their congressional representatives and giving them updates on the state of farmers markets in their home districts.

Fortunately, one doesn’t need to fly to Washington, DC to keep legislators informed about what programs like FMPP, Specialty Crop Block Grants, and WIC FMNP look like on the ground, thanks for phone, email, and the fact that every congressional leader has a home office.  FMC members interested in helping educate their policy-makers can email us to identify a Senator or Representative serving on an Agriculture Committee, and the best way to reach them.