“It’s bigger than just making sure our countrymen eat. It’s a national security issue,” says Stepheni Norton of Dickinson Farm, a small urban farm in south San Diego County. “We need to start to look at how we can put solutions in place that allow us to be sustainable as a country and that feed our communities.”

What is it?

The farm bill, known by a variety of names, is arguably the most influential piece of legislation on agriculture in the United States. It is a “common-sense pairing of nutrition and agriculture priorities that has for nearly a century helped to unite urban and rural constituencies around our most basic commonality—the food we eat,” claims Slow Food USA, a nonprofit organization dedicated to a “good, clean, and fair food chain for all.”

The first iteration of the legislation was introduced in 1933. Over the last 85 years, it has transformed into an omnibus, multi-year law that governs, funds, and essentially dictates agricultural practices and the farming economy through what it does and does not fund. The California Department of Food and Agriculture states it like this: “Investment in agriculture is an investment in our nation’s future. Farm bill programs support farm competitiveness, help to revitalize rural communities, ensure affordable and healthy food to those that need it most, and promote conservation and environmental stewardship on working lands.”

The farm bill has to be passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate and is implemented by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

What’s in it?

The farm bill authorizes about half a trillion dollars in mandatory funding for ag-related programming. The bill’s major areas of concern are included in its 15 “titles” which are subject to change. The titles in the 2014 farm bill cover issues such as farm commodities, crop insurance, conservation, credit issues, anti-hunger, nutrition, rural economic development, private forestry programs, international food aid, and trade programs.

A Local Impact – Keeping Farmers Farming

“In San Diego, we see the farm bill as a way to keep farmers farming, not as the big bucket of cash for commodity crops that most people see it as,” explains Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, a nonprofit organization that advocates for local farmers.

Commodity crops include wheat, corn, soybeans, peanuts, and rice, and San Diego farmers grow little to none of these. The strawberries, avocados, lemons, oranges, and tomatoes that we produce in abundance are all considered “specialty crops” under the farm bill. Today’s farm bill subsidizes those same commodity crops it began subsidizing in 1933. These also happen to be the basis for processed foods—the ones that, according to the USDA, we should eat the least of. And because our farmers don’t produce these crops, they get none of the 2014 farm bill’s $24 billion subsidy budget.

San Diego farmers do, however, benefit from a variety of programs in the Farm Bill.

“San Diego farmers get matching grants through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) for improving habitat, erosion protection, irrigation, and mulching to reduce water usage,” according to Larson.

With our region expected to experience more frequent drought conditions only punctuated by periods of rain, water conservation is critical to our food security. This funding can also go towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions through projects such as carbon farming. Simply stated, carbon farming sequesters carbon from the air by laying rich compost on graze lands and allowing cattle to roam freely. In other words, USDA funds farmers to revert to older agricultural methods to, hopefully, undo harm caused by modern agriculture. Locally, Jena and Michael King Foundation funds Kevin Muno of Montado Farms in Santa Ysabel to explore this exact process. The work would be strengthened by expanding funding for EQIP in the 2018 Farm Bill, rather than have farmers like Muno rely on private funding through foundations. Identifying and implementing greenhouse gas reducing farming methods is also paramount for the sustainability of any farming in San Diego.  

Moreover, maintaining access to funding that’s available to beginning farmers and ranchers is also important for our county because San Diego, like everywhere else, has an aging farming population. We need to grow young farmers.

San Diego farmers also get funds to protect against exotic pests and diseases, like citrus greening. As there is no cure once a tree is infected, the citrus greening disease has wreaked havoc on Florida’s citrus industry for 20 years causing a 70% decline in their citrus production.

“San Diego doesn’t yet have citrus greening, but we do have the insect that carries it and the disease has been found in California,” Larson says. Funding to protect against the spread to local crops is vital, given the quantity of citrus San Diego County produces. Finally, the farm bill provides our farmers with funding to help with the cost of organic certification. With the highest number of organic farms of any county, San Diego particularly benefits from this program.

The Future of Farming

The vast array of issues the farm bill covers encourages bipartisanship and unlikely allies. Policymakers representing urban communities and rural parts of the country work together to ensure both groups’ needs are met by this legislation.

Yet, Congress has not completed a farm bill on time since 1990. And if the activities (or lack thereof) of this Congress are any indication, passing the 2018 farm bill will not be an easy or timely task. Because of these inevitable complications, some policymakers have proposed other agriculture-related legislation that would mandate funding to programs that are in the current farm bill but may be on the chopping block.

According to Daniel Sumner, director of the UC Agricultural Issues Center, “Every region or set of crops can list places that deserve an infusion of federal support.”

Indeed, Slow Food USA calls for “no cut to overall farm bill funding, restoration of conservation funding, and, of critical importance, no cut to anti-hunger funding and programs.”  

Among the new proposals is the Organic Agriculture Research Act of 2017, which aims to increase funding for the USDA’s organic research program. Additionally, the Urban Agriculture Act of 2016 was proposed to establish an Office of Urban Agriculture and make urban agriculture eligible to receive funding from various USDA programs.

In San Diego County, the introduction of these bills is particularly exciting. The Organic Agriculture Research Act could directly affect our many local organic farmers through applied research to improve farm productivity and efficiency, and thus profitability. Sixty-eight percent of our farms are between one and nine acres (i.e. are “small farms”), and many of these farms are also located in urban environments and would benefit greatly from the proposals under the Urban Agriculture Act.

However, urban and small farms aren’t eligible for much of the current legislation funding, as it’s aimed at larger farms that typically grow commodity crops. “San Diego can’t keep saying we have the highest per capita of small farms in the country, but not focus on the smaller guys. You can’t use data only when it suits you,” explains Norton. She’s enthusiastic about the potential for components of the Urban Agriculture Act to be included in the 2018 farm bill, and is concerned that continuing to exclude small farms like hers will hurt the local economy and the business of farming.

Do Your Part

While known for our beaches and our beer, San Diego is also a prolific food-producing county. Maintaining funds for programs, supporting our small, urban, and organic farmers, and reconnecting nutrition to farming (that’s a whole other story) are all critical to our region. As San Diegans we can contact the House and Senate committees responsible for drafting the legislation and encourage our representatives to get on that committee. Our farming community has a lot to gain or lose by participating.

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