Vermont Business Magazine President Trump today signed into law the new five-year Farm Bill that the Senate and House passed earlier this month by large bipartisan margins. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) again played a key role in writing and negotiating the bill and was a conferee as the Senate and House ironed out their differences on the bill. Leahy is a former chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, And Forestry Committee.
Leahy said in a statement: “Every Farm Bill is important to Vermont, and this Farm Bill reflects Vermont’s priorities, through and through.”
Leahy’s summary of Vermont Highlights in the Farm Bill is BELOW:
Vermont Highlights In The 2018 Farm Bill
(The Agriculture Improvement Act Of 2018)
Office Of Senator Patrick Leahy
(Senator Leahy Is A Farm Bill Conferee)
Dairy and Commodity Programs
Dairy Risk Coverage – In February 2018, Senator Leahy led improvements to the Margin Protection Program (MPP) that were included in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018. These improvements included an immediate reopening of the MPP signup to allow farmers to take advantage of the new and meaningful levels of risk protection at far more affordable rates. The initial improvements that Senator Leahy was able to make to the MPP earlier this year required the USDA to perform the program calculations and potential payments on a monthly basis, which improved accuracy and timeliness in support to farmers. Premium costs for Tier I enrollment were cut by nearly 70 percent and the Tier I threshold for lower premium costs now apply to the first 5 million pounds of production, up from the previous level of 4 million pounds, which better aligned the program with the median U.S. dairy farm size.
As dairy farmers continued to face difficulties this year, Senator Leahy sought additional improvements to the dairy safety net and fought hard to ensure that the final 2018 Farm Bill includes further enhancements including: higher coverage level thresholds at $8.50, $9.00, and $9.50 margin, lower premium costs for a farm’s first 5 million pounds of milk, and allowing overlap of the dairy margin protection and other USDA supported insurance programs. These improvements should make the newly named Dairy Margin Coverage program better and more affordable for Vermont’s family farmers.
In addition, after hearing concerns from Vermont dairy farmers, Senator Leahy fought to ensure that the Farm Bill will finally help those farmers who were initially blocked by USDA from enrolling in the improved MPP due to their participation in the Livestock Gross Margin Insurance for Dairy (LGM-Dairy). The bill allows them to retroactively sign up for MPP and take advantage of the critical benefits they were unfairly blocked from accessing this spring.
The bill also provides an option for dairy farmers to receive a 75 percent credit or 50 percent refund of the net premiums they paid from 2015-2017 in MPP, when the program did not provide the much needed support that farmers had anticipated. As farmers continue to struggle with this current dairy crisis and while many are being paid less for their milk than it costs them to produce that milk, this refund and credit option will help farmers struggling to stay afloat.
Dairy Product Donation Program – A new program to incentivize milk donation is another change in the bill coming as a direct result of ideas that Senator Leahy heard from Vermont dairy farmers and their cooperatives. According to data from the Federal Milk Marketing Order, last year in just the Northeast Marketing Area over a million gallons of milk were dumped and in recent years over 40 million gallons worth of milk nationwide have been dumped in manure lagoons, fields, or into animal feed when cooperatives can’t find a market for milk. The new Milk Donation Program will allow dairy processors and producers to partner with charitable organizations to donate milk to people in need and reduce food waste.
Targeting Farm Safety Net Programs – The final bill rejects the excessive loopholes that the House had initially included for the wealthiest agribusiness operations that would have allowed an exemption for partnerships, joint ventures, LLCs, and Subchapter S corporations from the adjusted gross income means-testing provision that makes any person or legal entity with an average adjusted gross income exceeding $900,000 (effectively $1.8 million for many couples) ineligible for commodity or conservation payments. The final bill also rejected the House’s proposal that would have allowed most corporate farms to receive multiple payments, rather than being limited to a single payment under a single payment cap, which is currently the case.
Dairy Business Innovation Initiatives – Another dairy win in the Farm Bill is a new authorization to promote dairy business innovation activities and provide resources to help dairy farmers, cheesemakers, and other dairy businesses to get their start, develop new innovative products, and expand markets. Vermont’s dairy farmers will benefit from the new markets and innovations this new program can help to develop.
Fluid Milk Incentives – Recognizing that milk is the number one source of nine essential nutrients in many young Americans’ diets and provides many significant health benefits, the Farm Bill authorizes new Healthy Fluid Milk Incentives Projects. These incentives will help to increase fluid milk consumption and encourage Americans to gain nutrients essential to good health that many are missing in their diets.
Environmental Quality Incentives Program – The final Farm Bill includes several improvements to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) led by Senator Leahy that will help the program better serve Vermont famers. EQIP helps farmers address nitrogen and phosphorus runoff, which has affected water quality in Lake Champlain. The program is extended through Fiscal Year 2023 and includes changes that will help improve EQIP practices, make it easier for organic farmers to participate, and provide better understanding for how those practices lead to quality conservation outcomes.
Agricultural Lands Easement Program – Senator Leahy led changes in the 2018 Farm Bill in the Senate and throughout conference to increase the flexibility and mandatory funding to the Agricultural Lands Easement (ALE) Program. The 2014 Farm Bill combined the Farmland Protection Program and the Grassland Reserve Program to create the ALE Program. ALE operates through state and local partners, including the Vermont Land Trust and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, to provide permanent protection for working agricultural lands and to promote agricultural viability for future generations because farmers are not just under threat from trade wars and extreme weather, but also loss of prime farmland to development. The changes made to ALE will improve the program and make it work better in Vermont and across the country to preserve family farms and help make farmland more affordable to beginning farmers.
Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) – Through Senator Leahy’s work the Farm Bill addresses a problem that recently cropped up with the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) in Vermont. Due to a new interpretation of the program’s authorization, the USDA was about to block states like Vermont, Minnesota, and those in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, from using the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) on farms that are required to implement stronger water quality measures and requirements. In Vermont’s case USDA cited a conflict with the state’s new Required Agricultural Practices (RAPs). Senator Leahy was able to address this problem in the final Farm Bill and ensure that the Vermont CREP, with its unique partnership between USDA and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, can continue to protect and improve water quality in Vermont.
Regional Equity – The final Farm Bill maintains the Regional Equity Program which Senator Leahy first initiated in the 2002 Farm Bill. This program brings greater conservation resources to Vermont and other northeastern states. In the 2014 Farm Bill, changes engineered by Leahy were made to ensure that Vermont and other smaller states received a fair distribution of USDA conservation funds. The House had sought to eliminate this provision, but the final bill rejected that proposal and the Regional Equity Program was maintained in the 2018 Farm Bill.
Conservation Compliance for Crop Insurance – The final Farm Bill maintains important conservation compliance requirements for commodity producers who receive crop insurance. These requirements ensure that environmentally sensitive land such as highly erodible cropland, wetlands, and vulnerable land that has never been farmed, are protected. Most producers are already required to follow these compliance rules because of other USDA benefits they receive. In Vermont, dairy farmers receiving support have long complied with conservation programs, leading to improved water quality and a reduction in environmental damage. The final bill also rejects provisions in the House Farm Bill that would have weakened a host of environmental protections provided by the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act.
Regional Conservation Partnership Program – The final Farm Bill increases the mandatory funding for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) and makes critical reforms to focus on conservation outcomes, allow organizations to receive funding for outreach and technical assistance, and increase the allocation of funds going to state-level and local conservation projects. The final bill requires that 50 percent of all RCPP funds be used to support state and multistate projects that address national or state resource concerns. This program was first created in the 2014 Farm Bill and has offered important support to Vermont farmers and the Lake Champlain cleanup effort, with more than $18 million in grants to provide both financial and technical assistance to farmers and forest landowners for the development and implementation of water quality improvement projects in the Lake Champlain Basin. RCPP has also brought together traditional and nontraditional partners, from state and federal agencies to dairy cooperatives and lenders, which have collectively contributed more than $20 million in match to the Vermont RCPP project, enabling greater participation in the Lake Champlain, Connecticut River, and Lake Memphremagog clean-up efforts.
Farm Viability – A change that Senator Leahy requested to the Education and Risk Management Assistance provision will allow USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to provide grants for educating and providing technical assistance to farmers and forest landowners on a full range of farm viability and risk management activities, including business planning, enterprise analysis, transfer and succession planning, management coaching, market assessment, cash flow analysis. Senator Leahy had heard firsthand from Vermonters about the importance of business advising for not only farmers, but also agriculturally-related businesses, forest products enterprises, and forest landowners, which is why he worked hard to expand an existing NIFA program to support these critical services and needs in Vermont and across the country. This expanded authorization will allow USDA to support ongoing work in Vermont where business advisors are matched to agricultural entrepreneurs in order to provide them with assistance with business management skills, feasibility studies, and marketing.
Hunger Safety Net
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – Even as the economy has improved, too many Americans still struggle to put food on their tables. For these families, nutrition assistance such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and emergency assistance programs are crucial.
The Farm Bill conferees agreed to maintain strong support for critical nutrition programs such as SNAP (renamed 3SquaresVT in Vermont) and rejected the harmful cuts to benefits and eligibility in the partisan House Farm Bill draft, which would have cut millions of Americans off nutrition assistance. The final agreement also includes mandatory funding the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) program, which helps improve access to fresh fruit and vegetables for SNAP participants. The conference agreement maintains a provision that was a priority for Senator Leahy to make it easier for farmer’s markets to accept SNAP benefits. Finally, the bill builds upon successful workforce training programs particularly for those who are suffering from addiction, includes funding for The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) that supports our local food banks, and includes a new grant program to help those with chronic health conditions related to diet access fresh fruit and vegetables.
Organics and Local Food
Organic Research – The final Farm Bill reauthorizes the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative and provides mandatory funding for the program that will gradually increase each year. By fiscal year 2023, the program will receive $50 million in mandatory funding which will continue for each year after. This vital change will guarantee baseline funding in future Farm Bill debates, ensuring an expansion of the important research being done to help organic producers increase their production and reduce costs.
Organic Certification Cost-Share Program – Senator Leahy is pleased that this Farm Bill renews funding for the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program after the House version of the bill had sought to eliminate the program completely. This program is critical in helping beginning organic farmers afford organic certification through USDA by providing producers with 75 percent, or up to $750, of the total certification cost. “Organic food is one of the fastest growing sectors of the agricultural economy. This program will keep it that way,” Leahy said.
Protecting the Organic Label – As the ‘father’ of the national organic standards and labeling program and author of the 1990 Organic Farm Bill, Senator Leahy continues to lead the way on making this burgeoning sector secure, trustworthy and economically viable. Senator Leahy led efforts to increase the authorization for the National Organic Program to $16.5 million in fiscal year 2019 with increases each year up to $24 million in fiscal year 2023. This Farm Bill includes improvements to ensuring the integrity of the USDA organic seal by adding a documentation and traceability enhancement measure to help prevent fraudulent organic imports. The Farm Bill also establishes the Organic Agricultural Product Imports Interagency Working Group which will allow USDA and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection to work together to inspect organic imports and prevent the import of fraudulent organic products.
Organic Data Initiatives Program – The final Farm Bill reauthorizes the Organic Production and Market Data Initiatives and provides $10 million in mandatory one-time funding. This critical funding will allow for continued organic data collection and distribution of organic market information, including data on production, handling, distribution, retail and consumer purchasing patterns that will benefit Vermont farmers and food entrepreneurs alike.
Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP) – The final bill rejects the House proposal to eliminate the increasingly popular Value-added Producer Grants Program and the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program, and instead the final bill merges the two programs into the new Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP). Grants administered through this new program will support partnerships in planning and developing local and regional food systems that can make a big impact in Vermont. With the bill providing the new LAMP account with $50 million in Fiscal Year 2023, the Farm Bill strategically guarantees baseline funding in future Farm Bills for this important work. The new LAMP funding continues to build on the steady growth of consumer interest in local and regional foods that is transforming the “farm to plate” food system efforts into a serious economic driver. Senator Leahy fought hard to maintain these programs and ensure they had strong funding because he has seen firsthand in Vermont with the ‘Farm to Plate’ food system plan how increased production of local foods leads to more jobs for Vermonters and a stronger economy for our rural communities, while also improving access to healthy local food for all Vermonters.
Specialty Crop Block Grants – The Farm Bill reauthorizes the Specialty Crop Block Grants which enhance the competitiveness of specialty products by promoting local and regional farm and food system specialty crop development. 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.
Promoting Maple Syrup Research and Marketing – The ACER Access and Development Program which provides grant money to support the domestic maple syrup industry was established in the 2014 Farm Bill and is now extended to 2023 in the final Farm Bill. This program promotes research and education related to maple syrup production, natural resources sustainability in the maple syrup industry, market production of maple syrup and maple-sap products, and encourages private land owners to initiate or expand maple-sugaring. The House had sought to eliminate this important program supporting the maple industry of Vermont.
Addressing Maple’s Added-Sugar Concerns – The bill also takes an important step to help the Vermont maple industry by exempting pure maple syrup from the Food and Drug Administration’s “Added Sugar” Label Rule that has caused an uproar in Vermont. Maple producers feared that the labeling requirement would give a misleading impression for consumers on single ingredient maple and honey products as it would signal to consumers that these pure products may contain added sweeteners such as table sugar or high-fructose corn syrup, which is patently false. While Senator Leahy is very supportive of the FDA’s work to ensure that nutrition labels remain scientifically valid and helpful to consumers, he was also very concerned by the confusion it could create if applied to pure maple syrup and honey.
REAP Zones – Senator Leahy championed creation of the Rural Economic Area Partnership (REAP) Zone program that has been so successful in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, and he has ensured that the REAP Zone program would be renewed under the final Farm Bill. REAP Zones set up collaborative and citizen-led efforts to enhance economic development. This effort is a vibrant model for building a new rural economy that other rural areas are beginning to emulate. In 2016, the REAP Zone designation secured the Northeast Kingdom $6.7 million, which helped leverage an additional $12 million in general allocation funds, for a total of $18.7 million to promote business, community development, affordable housing and investments in infrastructure. In FY17, the REAP Zone secured $5.5 million in federal investment in the Northeast Kingdom.
Reauthorization of the Northern Border Regional Commission – The Northern Border Regional Commission (NBRC) was first created in the 2008 Farm Bill with the advocacy of Senator Leahy. Since 2010, Vermont organizations have received more than $7.8 million to spur economic development and job growth in Vermont’s six northern-most counties and leveraged more than $10.5 million in matching funds for a total of $18 million in economic development and infrastructure projects. The Farm Bill reauthorizes the Commission for five more years and includes administrative changes that will promote efficiency and expands the NBRC’s work in all fourteen counties in Vermont. The reauthorization also establishes a capacity building grant to help states better support business retention and expansion, encourage job creation and workforce development, expand access to high-speed broadband and encourage initiatives that drive investments in transportation and other infrastructure. In his role as Vice Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senator Leahy has advocated for increased funding for the NBRC, including $20 million in the final Fiscal Year 2019 Energy & Water Appropriation bill.
Under Secretary of Agriculture for Rural Development – The final bill requires USDA to reestablish the position of Under Secretary for Rural Development that Secretary Perdue had abolished and replaced with an Assistant to the Secretary for Rural Development in his May 2017 reorganization.
State Rural Development Councils – Senator Leahy’s amendment to continue the authorization for State Rural Development Councils (SRDCs) was included in the final Farm Bill, which will ensure that these councils will be able to continue their important work of strengthening rural communities in Vermont and across the country. The Vermont Council on Rural Development has a 26 year history of working with communities to identify unique challenges and craft innovative solutions to break down barriers to growth. This reauthorization will renew for five years the statutory authority, functions and authorization of appropriations for State Rural Development Councils. While SRDCs have not received funding in recent history, this Farm Bill authorizes $10 million in annual funding for that National Rural Development Partnership.
Business and Innovation Services – The final Farm Bill ensures that the USDA Community Facilities Program will be able to better support growing rural businesses in Vermont. Emerging rural businesses face unique challenges, which can be addressed by investing in business incubators, makerspaces, and job training centers that provide much needed resources for Vermont communities to support their entrepreneurs. It also improves the Rural Business Investment Program to promote investment funds that serve rural entrepreneurs and creates a new program, the Rural Innovation Stronger Economy Grant program, to invest in rural job accelerator initiatives like job training, mentorship and access to affordable financial capital. These new initiatives will help minimize barriers faced by Vermont’s rural entrepreneurs and small and growing businesses.
Investments to Strengthen Rural Water Infrastructure – The Senate bill will help Vermont families and businesses gain improved access to clean drinking water and the bill provides for targeted support to addresses harmful contaminants like PFOA that has contaminated drinking water wells in Bennington and North Bennington, Vermont.
National Oilheat Research Alliance – After a great deal of contentious negotiations with the House, Senator Leahy’s work with a bipartisan group of Senators and House members was able to secure a much needed ten year reauthorization of the National Oilheat Research Alliance (NORA). NORA supports oil heating companies and rural customers in Vermont by working with manufacturers to do research and development of efficient heating technology, educating technicians and communicating with the public about the benefits of oil heat. In a state like Vermont, where the winters are beautiful but cold, providing efficient, affordable heating options is critically important and NORA helps the more than 40 percent of Vermont homeowners who rely on oil to heat their homes. NORA also supports the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association with research, training and efficiency upgrades at locations across the state. In reauthorizing NORA, this Farm Bill helps Vermonters heat their homes in less expensive and more environmentally friendly ways.
Hemp Farming – The final Farm Bill improved upon the original Senate provisions that sought to fully clarify that hemp is an agricultural commodity and removing it from the federal list of controlled substances. The Farm Bill allows states to regulate industrial hemp and ensures that hemp growers can apply for grants from the USDA, they will be eligible for crop insurance, and agricultural and academic research relating to industrial hemp. Vermont had nearly 300 registered hemp producers this year, who planted nearly 2,000 acres of hemp. This Farm Bill will be very important to the many Vermont farmers hoping to diversify and remain viable, while removing the terrible uncertainty of federal prosecution that this crop has had for far too long. The final bill also addressed the concerns that had been raised about the initial Senate language on hemp that would have banned individuals with drug-related felony convictions on their records from participating in the hemp industry. Thankfully a compromise was been reached on that matter, which addresses the concerns raised by criminal justice advocates.
Study for Land Grant Universities and Cooperative Extension -- The Farm Bill directs the Secretary of Agriculture to complete a much needed study to determine how, through Cooperative Extension, to best to serve the changing needs in rural America. This will help support the University of Vermont – a federal Land Grant college – in providing adequate services for the growth and development of rural communities based on their changing demographics. The required report to Congress will focus on the need to carry out activities related to small and diverse farms, veteran farmers, value-added agriculture, direct-to-consumer sales, and specialty crops.
Supports Agricultural Trade – The Farm Bill consolidates the Market Access Program with a few other trade programs to create the new Priority Trade Promotion, Development, and Assistance Program in order to access, develop, maintain, and expand markets for U.S. agricultural goods. Vermont producers benefit greatly from more and improved export markets.
McGovern-Dole – The McGovern–Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program facilitates distribution of food commodities through schools in developing countries through partner organizations to improve food security, reduce hunger, and improve literacy in low income and food deficit countries. The program has projects all over the world and has fed more than 40 million children from some of the poorest countries. The Farm Bill reauthorizes this important program fighting hunger worldwide.
Food for Peace – The largest food aid program under the Agriculture Committee’s jurisdiction, Food for Peace provides for emergency aid and non-emergency development projects. This notable program enables the U.S. to donate food overseas to promote food security, and the Farm Bill reauthorizes the program and makes important reforms that will improve the U.S. response to crises.
Timber Innovation – The final Farm Bill clarifies that the Forest Service can do research and offer technical assistance to assist with those hoping to use innovative wood products. A new wood innovation grant program is created to promote research and development of wood products, and improve the sustainability and environmental impact of using wood for construction.
Community Wood Energy Program – The Farm Bill reauthorizes the program and makes improvements to the competitive grant program that is designed to help state and local governments pay for the installation of high-efficiency, biomass-fueled energy systems, such as combined heat and power. The changes made to the program are designed to promote energy security, support rural economies, and help keep private forests intact at a time when Vermont forest landowners are under constant pressure to develop their forestlands.
Protections for Pets and Domestic Violence Survivors – Senator Leahy is a cosponsor of the Pet and Women Safety Act which would increase the punishments for domestic abusers who threaten or harm the pets of a domestic violence survivor. This bill was included in the final Farm Bill and will help to increase the peace of mind and security when survivors make the difficult decision to leave an abusive environment.