2018 FARM BILL
Jason Bowsza, Chief of Staff, Commissioner’s Office
Congress recently passed the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, also known as the 2018 Farm Bill. This legislation is the basis for allowing the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to deliver funding and services that agriculture producers around the country—and right here in Connecticut—depend on. The bill now waits for the president’s signature.
The bill, at more than 850 pages, includes provisions that will be meaningful for Connecticut farmers. Language pertaining to hemp, farmland preservation efforts, dairy support programs, specialty crop block grants, and crop insurance all were included in the final bill.
Of note to many farmers in Connecticut is language that removes hemp—and its derivatives—from the Controlled Substances Act and establishes it as an agricultural commodity1.
Connecticut’s congressional delegation, particularly Congressmen Joe Courtney and John Larson, as well as Senators Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, have long been supporters of expanded opportunities to cultivate hemp in Connecticut.
Under the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp plants must still contain less than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). States and tribal nations will be able to submit plans to USDA that establish state-level, permanent hemp-growing plans. These plans will require the establishment of information gathering mechanisms, testing, inspection, and disposal procedures.
The state-level plans will need to be approved by the U.S. secretary of agriculture, after consultation with the U.S. attorney general. Enforcement will be done at the state/tribal level. Any individual who has committed a drug felony won’t be able to participate in the growing of hemp until 10 years after their conviction date.
The Conservation Title in the Farm Bill2 plays a critical role in providing federal funding for the preservation of farmland, but because this title has a litany of diverse programs with total funding of more than $6 billion, it is one of the more challenging pieces of the overall Farm Bill to negotiate.
Connecticut directly benefits from programs such as the Agriculture Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), which allows the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to partner with states to permanently protect prime and important farmland.
The bill increases federal funding to $450 million for ACEP over each of the next five years, providing opportunity for continued successes in our farmland preservation program. ACEP will now prioritize projects that maintain farm viability.
Several of the changes to ACEP incorporated into the Farm Bill are welcome news. Commissioner Reviczky has been encouraging NRCS for years to simplify the process for states to become certified entities under the program, which would expedite the preservation of more farms.
The language in the bill allows for states with established PDR programs who hold at least 10 federal easements to become certified entities, a bar that Connecticut easily meets.
The bill also allows for the use of conservation plans for highly erodible cropland, rather than the more burdensome agricultural land easement plans.
It also includes language allowing for buy-protect-sell projects to be eligible for federal funds, building on a concept that the Connecticut Department of Agriculture got passed into law during the 2018 legislative session. This new language will allow local land trusts and municipalities to become more significant partners in farmland preservation work.
The dairy sector in the United States has experienced particularly trying circumstances over the last several years, and it is clear that federal programs have been ineffective for dairy farmers in the Northeast, particularly here in Connecticut. The new Farm Bill makes some changes that will hopefully provide a workable safety net.
The bill, which reconstitutes the Margin Protection Program as the Dairy Margin Coverage Payments (DMP) program, will reduce the cost of $5 margin coverage by 88 percent3. It provides greater access to producers of all sizes to access Tier 1 premium rates, and seeks to permit all dairy producers access to affordable premiums on margins about $8 on the first 5,000,000 pounds that they produce.
Farms would be charged $.005/cwt for $5 coverage in both Tier 1 (less than five million pounds of production) and Tier 2 (more than 5,000,000 pounds of production). To secure an $8 coverage level, Tier 1 producers would be charged $.10/cwt and Tier 2 producers would be charged $1.813/cwt4.
The bill also includes incentives to encourage dairy producers to pay farmers who donate surplus milk to charitable organizations. Connecticut has considered more expansive legislation that would allow for a tax credit on food donated by farmers to food pantries over the last several years, but that concept has not received final approval yet.
The final version of the Farm Bill keeps in places funding that supports specialty crop growers by continuing to make funding available for projects associated with research, consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, and best pest management practices.
The bill allows shellfish farmers access to crop insurance programs, a service not previously available to them, offering a boost to our world-class shellfish industry should disaster strike.
The bill also allows the recognition of farms that have been in continuous operation for 100 years or more by including Senator Murphy’s Century Farm Act in the final language.
Connecticut has been recognizing the commitment of Connecticut farm families through a similar designation for many years, and Senator Murphy has been working for several years to get the federal government to extend that recognition as well.
The bill makes programming and funding available to new and beginning farmers to encourage the future of agriculture and help the next generation to get started in this challenging field.
The bill triples the current investment in new and beginning farmer programs, providing more than $435 million to educate new farmers and engage minority farmers through urban outreach, offering opportunities for small farm business establishment, expansion, and risk management5.
The Farm Bill is a significant piece of legislation that codifies federal agriculture policy for a five-year period. Like any public policy, the Farm Bill will undoubtedly include some winners and losers, and not all of the programs included will work as intended.
However, based on many of the initiatives that were covered under this bill, Connecticut agricultural producers stand to see considerable opportunity for ensured viability and expansion in the next few years.
1 Information pertaining to the hemp provisions is sourced from the U.S. Hemp Roundtable, a business trade association in the hemp industry.
2 Information pertaining to the Conservation Title is sourced from American Farmland Trust and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
4 States Ratification Committee
5 2018 Farm Bill Overview, emailed by U.S. Senator Chris Murphy, December 17, 2018.