Targeted programs for minorities, new farmers, and the environment have been removed from the U.S. Farm Bill as a consequence of significant, under-reported cuts in the deal to avert the so-called “fiscal cliff.” While the deal extended some key Farm Bill provisions, one of which will prevent milk prices from skyrocketing, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) insisted on cutting these programs as part of the final deal.
Though targeted programs (described as such because they’re “targeted” at helping certain groups of farmers) would have made up only about one percent of the nine-month farm bill extension’s price tag, they make up its most comprehensive and effectual efforts at making American farming sustainable and open to all Americans. Below are three examples of important targeted programs cut at McConnell’s behest:
1. Outreach and Technical Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers. Because the historical legacy of slavery and discrimination in landowning left the vast majority of American farmland in white hands, African-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans are dramatically underrepresented in American farming. Moreover, continued discrimination and unequal education means that white farmers disproportionately benefit from USDA support programs. The Outreach and Technical Assistance program, also known as 2501, is the only federal program dedicated to rectifying this discriminatory legacy by funding grants, education initiatives, and outreach organizations designed specifically for minority farmers. Created in 1990, but more robustly funded in both 2002 and 2008, it has been “most effective in reversing the decline of socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers across the United States,” according to Professor Robert Zabawa, an expert on race and farming at Tuskegee University. 2501 is strongly supported by a broad group of organizations around the country, including the AFL-CIO.
2. Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. The farm bill is larded with favors to big agribusiness. To take just one example, there are no functional caps on subsidy payments, which means that huge corporate farms get roughly a third of the subsidies designed to keep family farmers afloat. This corporate welfare makes it very difficult for new farmers (who are generally smaller and poorer) to make their businesses work. The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program is the USDA’s attempt to address this problem. Since it was first funded in 2008, the Program has spent roughly $70 million on efforts to give beginning farmers a fighting chance.
3. Rural Energy for America Program. Renewable energy, particularly solar power, provides cheaper and more climate-friendly power to farmers. Indeed, renewable energy use has exploded on American farms in recent years, thanks in part to the Rural Energy for America Program. Created in the 2008 Farm Bill, the program provides loans and grants to farmers looking to power their farm or ranch with clean energy. The initiative has provided roughly $350 million loans and grants since it’s been created, directly resulting in 600,000 rural American homes being powered by renewables in place of CO2-emitting fuels, according to a USDA review.
The deal also cuts three programs aimed at land conservation, compounding an earlier drafting snafu that cut enormous amounts of funding for protecting American land. The Farm Bill’s land conservation efforts are critical bulwarks against water pollution and CO2 emissions from American industrial agriculture.
While temporarily suspending funding for these programs for nine months will damage, but not necessarily cripple, these programs, the bigger concern is whether they’ll make it back into a more permanent five-year extension passed later this year.