New farm bill has key provisions for Pennsylvania

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- After years of public input and legislative debate, Congress on June 18 overrode a presidential veto to pass the 2008 farm bill, which an economist in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences said contains key provisions likely to benefit Pennsylvania.

Officially known as the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, the farm bill will guide the nation's food and agricultural policies for the next five years. "The legislation is divided into topic areas called titles, and many of the titles authorize programs important to Pennsylvania," said James Dunn, professor of agricultural economics.

For instance, under the commodity programs title, the bill extends until 2012 the Milk Income Loss Contract program, which provides payments to dairy producers when milk prices fall below a certain level. Dairy is Pennsylvania's largest agricultural sector.

"For the first time, the MILC program will include a feed-cost adjustment that will be a factor in triggering program payments," Dunn explained. "The cost of fuel, feed, seed and fertilizer all have increased significantly. With corn selling for around $8 per bushel -- compared to $2 per bushel a couple of years ago -- this feed-cost provision will help the typical Pennsylvania dairy farmer, who must buy corn to feed his or her cattle."

Dunn cites other farm bill titles that have special relevance for Pennsylvania:

-- Specialty crops. A new title in the farm bill will assist producers of organic and horticultural crops, such as fruits and vegetables. Pennsylvania ranks high nationally in the production of several specialty crops, including mushrooms (first), pumpkins (third) and apples (fourth).

"In the past, the farm bill only addressed big-acre commodities, such as corn, soybean and wheat," Dunn said. "This time, lawmakers included some funding for marketing and promotion of farmers' markets and organic produce, as well as programs to address issues with fruit and vegetable food safety and pest management. This title also authorizes federal funding for research on Colony Collapse Disorder in honey bees, which is critical for specialty-crop growers who rely on honey bees for pollination."

In addition, the research title of the bill dedicates $230 million for the Specialty Crop Research Initiative and another $25 million for fresh-produce-safety grants.

-- Energy. The energy title provides a total of $1 billion to fund a variety of grants, loan guarantees and other incentives for the development of renewable energy sources. "One program will provide grants to help agricultural producers and rural small businesses install renewable energy systems and improve energy efficiency," noted Dunn.

"Other programs will encourage research and development for the next generation of biofuel feedstocks -- such as agricultural and forest crops, animal manure and food-processing waste -- some of which are well suited to Pennsylvania." Funding increases for studies on the production and sustainability of biofuels and their feedstocks also are found in the research title of the bill.

-- Conservation. This title extends the Conservation Reserve Program, which removes marginal cropland from production and encourages environmental enhancements on those lands. "Tilling on Pennsylvania's hills and steep slopes can lead to soil erosion," Dunn said. "The CRP not only helps protect the soil, but it also can create and preserve habitat for birds and other wildlife."

The conservation title also provides $438 million in new funding to help farmers meet stringent regulatory requirements aimed at improving water quality in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which encompasses the Susquehanna River basin and all or parts of 41 Pennsylvania counties.

-- Rural development. This title continues and authorizes programs that will help rural communities to maintain and improve infrastructure, enhance economic development, attract jobs and improve emergency services.

"Pennsylvania has a large rural population," says Dunn. "But many rural communities have high unemployment rates and a high percentage of residents on fixed incomes, and that makes it difficult for them to afford 9-1-1 and other emergency services, expensive water and sewer projects, broadband telecommunications services and other critical infrastructure."

-- Crop insurance. The bill makes changes to the federally subsidized crop insurance program to reduce fraud and abuse. "Crop insurance has become more important in the last few years as weather extremes have intensified," Dunn pointed out. "Increasingly, conventional Pennsylvania farmers have begun to use this tool, and this farm bill calls for reforms that will provide better coverage for organic growers as well. The idea is to help producers manage their own risk, rather than always giving disaster relief."

-- Forestry. "About half of Pennsylvania is forested, and most of that land is privately owned," said Dunn. "The legislation authorizes programs to help nonindustrial private forestland owners implement conservation initiatives and habitat restoration. This is exceptionally important for protecting rural Pennsylvania's landscape, water quality and other natural amenities. The bill also encourages the development of new energy feedstocks and other uses for forest biomass."

-- Nutrition. Traditionally, about two-thirds of the funding in the farm bill is allotted to nutrition programs, and this title takes into account rapidly rising food prices by increasing funding for such programs by more than $10 billion, Dunn noted. "That includes school lunch programs, emergency food assistance through food banks and so forth," he said. "The food stamp program has been renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and food stamp coupons will be replaced with a type of debit card to reduce fraud and abuse."

The farm bill also increases funding for USDA's snack program, which helps schools provide healthy snacks to students during after-school activities. "This program improves childhood nutrition while expanding markets for Pennsylvania fruit and vegetable growers," said Dunn.

More information on the farm bill is available online at http://agriculture.house.gov/inside/FarmBill.html.

 

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Last Updated March 19, 2009