NFFC Comments on Farm Bill Implementation, 2/26/19

These comments were submitted pursuant to a USDA public listening session on implementation of the 2018 Farm Bill. The session focused on changes in programs of the Farm Service Agency (FSA), the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and the Risk Management Agency (RMA).

National Family Farm Coalition Comments
USDA Farm Bill Implementation Listening Session, February 26, 2019
Submitted March 1, 2019

Established in 1986, National Family Farm Coalition is a coalition of grassroots organizations representing the rights and interests of family farmers, ranchers, and fishermen. On behalf of our 26 member organizations in 42 states, we urge USDA to consider the following provisions in the implementation of H.R. 2 (115):

Effective and Targeted Outreach to Socially Disadvantaged Farmers

A long and documented history of USDA discrimination at both the federal and local levels demands that the agency today prioritize effective, culturally appropriate and targeted outreach to Black, Latino, Native American, Asian Pacific, and other socially disadvantaged farmers to ensure they have equal access to USDA services and programs. In particular, USDA must dedicate resources to informing these communities about expanded emergency eligibility under Section 5307 to ensure fair access, particularly in historically underserved and disaster-prone regions. We urge USDA to quickly conduct this outreach in a fully transparent and data-driven way to ensure that socially disadvantaged farmers are fairly served.

Improving Heirs Property Farmer Access to USDA programs

NFFC applauds the new language in H.R. 2 (115) that improves heirs property farmer access to USDA programs, and particularly FSA and NRCS. We support the comments of our allies the Rural Coalition and NFFC member organizations the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and North Carolina Association of Black Lawyers Land Loss Prevention Project on this issue, and we urge USDA to immediately issue interim directives to implement this section, and quickly finalize these rules (with public comment) under Section 12615 to expedite broad farmer access to these programs. With respect to implementing regulations for the other forms of alternative documentation, we urge the Secretary to specifically require, as the Managers have stated, that alternate documentation ensure that operators on heirs property are enabled to access USDA programs, and that these alternate documentation are intended to benefit operators on heirs property.  As such, producers using the alternate forms of documentation should be required to include documentation that the operator or operators are in fact legitimate heirs to that property.

We further urge USDA to carry out required land tenure research (Section 12607) in a transparent and participatory manner that recognizes historical trends in discriminatory land access practices against socially disadvantaged farmers.

Family Farmer Access to FSA Loans

As family farmers – particularly commodity producers – continue to struggle through this prolonged period of low prices, farmers are increasingly dependent on access to FSA loans in order to finance the coming growing season and maintain their farms’ financial sustainability. NFFC was pleased that no significant cuts were made to FSA’s Guaranteed and Direct Operating loans and Guaranteed Farm Ownership loans for 2019, and pleased with changes in Section 5305 that improve the equitable relief provisions for farmer borrowers. At the same time, we are concerned that the raising of the loan cap restrictions will lead to larger but fewer FSA loans. We urge FSA to ensure that socially disadvantaged, young and beginning, veteran, diversified and small-scale farmers have priority access to FSA loans and services, in order to support the economic health of our rural communities.

Furthermore, we support the comments of our ally the Rural Coalition and NFFC member organizations the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and North Carolina Association of Black Lawyers Land Loss Prevention Project regarding Section 5104 and the relending pilot program for families seeking to resolve heirs’ property issues and obtain clear title to farmland. We believe this is an important program that should be implemented in consultation with stakeholder groups and fully funded to the $10 million annual limit.

Conservation Stewardship Program

CSP, under Section 2301, offers critical support to farmers to invest in sustainable production practices to increase their climate resilience, soil health, and productivity. We were disappointed to see H.R. 2 (115) cut funding to CSP. We urge USDA to maintain the integrity of CSP as distinct and complementary to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. Furthermore, we urge USDA to fully uphold the standards of “advanced conservation activities” such as cover cropping under CSP through effective enforcement. Finally we support a flexible approach to USDA recognition of ongoing farmer practices that qualify for this standard and those transitioning their farms toward these practices.

Study on Credit Access for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers

We applaud the political leadership that has mandated in Section 5416 that the Comptroller General assess current and historic barriers to credit access for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. We urge USDA’s RMA to fully collaborate with and support the Comptroller General in this research, by providing all data, technical support, and information required to carry out an objective and transparent study.

Strengthen Farmer Borrower Rights

With rising interest rates becoming an increasing challenge for farmers, we are glad to see that Congress improved farmer loan eligibility (Sec. 5307) and urge USDA to dedicate resources to informing farmers of this change. While this change is encouraging, it does not go far enough, and thus we urge USDA to consider ways in which it can strengthen protections for farmers borrowing to invest in their farm operations. Family farmers often have to put up their own home as collateral for access to loans, and in tragic situations in which they default on their payments and lose their home, their family’s livelihood is at significant risk. Thus we urge USDA to consider ways to strengthen basic protections for farmer borrowers to ensure both financial accountability and the sustainability of farming families.

Matching Funds for State Agriculture Mediation

We support the comments of our ally the Rural Coalition and NFFC member organizations the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and North Carolina Association of Black Lawyers Land Loss Prevention Project on Section 5402 regarding mediation programs and urge the Secretary to provide prompt and clear guidance on these changes. While we anticipate that many cases will continue to focus on farm loan and credit issues, the addition of leases, family farm transitions, farmer/neighbor, organic certification, and credit counseling will certainly increase the demand for mediation services.

Addressing the Dairy Crisis

There is broad recognition that the dairy sector is in crisis. Federal policy has failed to ensure that family dairy farms are paid fair prices to cover their cost of operation. As a first-step emergency measure, we urge USDA to ensure that outreach under stress assistance programs (Section 7412) are appropriately tailored to those communities and geographies most in-need, such as small-scale and low-capital farms in the dairy sector (although this effort should be implemented across sectors).

We do not expect that long-awaited, but disappointing, overhaul of Dairy Margin Coverage (Section 1401) will provide the support family dairy farmers urgently need. Thus we urge USDA to work with Congress toward addressing the systemic causes of the dairy crisis by exploring policy mechanisms to establish a dairy supply management program to curb overproduction, and setting an emergency $20/cwt price floor. Furthermore, we urge USDA to begin this dairy policy reform process in a fully transparent and participatory manner, with family dairy farmers (particularly small-scale, mid-scale, and organic producers) directly involved in shaping these new policies.

Finally, under the reform of the Dairy Product Donation Program (Section 1404), we request USDA to quickly establish a fair reimbursement rate that allows family dairy farmers to cover their cost of operation.

Conclusion

We thank USDA for the opportunity to submit these written comments and urge USDA to incorporate this input into the Farm Bill implementation process. We are willing to work in partnership with the Department to achieve these common goals if given the opportunity to do so.

 

For further information, contact:

Jordan Treakle, NFFC Policy Coordinator (jordan@nffc.net; 202-543-5675)

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