The much-anticipated Farm Bill, which cleared both chambers of Congress in late January and was signed into law by President Obama on February 7, is a large and complicated piece of legislation with more than 900 pages of text and a price tag of nearly $1 trillion. It contains considerable reforms in crop subsidies and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), often referred to as “food stamps.” Depending on who does the math, the new Farm Bill, formally known as the Agricultural Act of 2014, contains between $16 and $24 billion in savings.
A Farm Bill is typically passed by Congress and signed into law every five years or so, but this one took a fair bit longer—nearly two years longer—and its final passage was in significant doubt throughout the process. However, now that it is the law of the land and the battles to pass the bill are behind us, we can take a moment to look at the accomplishments and “good stuff” the bill contains for our industry.
Significant funding increases – where it counts
Since the passage of the 2008 Farm Bill—which for the first time included the Horticulture Title and other programs focused on specialty crops—the American Nursery & Landscape Association and OFA (now AmericanHort) have stressed the significance of four programs in particular: Plant Pest and Disease Management and Disaster Prevention Program (10201), National Clean Plant Network (NCPN), Specialty Crop Block Grants (SCBG) and Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI). While many programs saw significant cuts in federal support, these four received a total increase of nearly 75 percent, going from $631 million between 2008 and 2012 to $1.1 billion for 2014 through 2018.
Section 10201 of the Farm Bill will be consolidated with NCPN, strengthening both programs through additional funding and legislative language that suggests long-term stability. In recent years, we have been able to work with USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS)—the agency tasked with administrating 10201—to utilize the program to fund research efforts into emerging threats like boxwood blight, impatiens downy mildew, Phytopthora ramorum (the cause of sudden oak death), and likely a program where we will look for support to answer important science questions on rose rosette disease.
In addition to securing a minimum of $5 million per year in funding for NCPN, the new consolidated program includes legislative language that will maintain funding even if the Farm Bill expires after 2018 and it is sustained under a continuing resolution. When the 2008 Farm Bill expired in September of 2012, there was no such language and NCPN was unfunded for nearly a year and a half.
Despite a new approach to calculating how much money each state receives for SCBGs, we expect that the significant increase in funding will mean more money for every state. For the first time, SCBG funds will be available for multistate coordinated projects, expanding the opportunities for our state and regional industry association partners to work together on various fronts for the benefit of all segments of the industry, including breeding and growing, distribution, garden retail and landscape services. However, implementation of the multistate portion of the program is something we are monitoring closely; we’re working the USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Service, the program’s administrating agency, to ensure that promotional campaigns like Plant Something (http://www.plant-something.org), which has shown promise in uniting all aspects of our industry, are given a shot at this funding.
Good news for specialty crops
The Farm Bill-funded Specialty Crop Research Initiative typically funds multimillion-dollar projects to tackle foundational concerns for various specialty crop industries. However, it has remained largely an enigma for our industry since its inception in 2008. While a few very useful horticulture-related projects have been funded, others have been focused on interesting science but often missed the mark when it comes to industry priorities.
To address these concerns, over the course of the last four years we have worked with the agriculture committee staff of both the House and Senate, as well as the administrator and staff of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the agency that manages SCRI. Through these efforts, the new Farm Bill legislation includes the framework of a new grant review process for what will result in projects that meet industry priorities first and foremost, but which are always grounded in sound scientific practices and approach. These process changes, along with additional funding and assurances that the program will survive beyond the life of this Farm Bill, lead us to believe that our industry now has greater access to funding opportunities to tackle some of our greatest plant production challenges.
The 2014 Farm Bill certainly contains much to be enthusiastic about, and the hard work leading up to the crafting and eventual passage of the bill has paid off. However, legislative language only gets you so far. It is up to the federal agencies to interpret and implement. To that point, we will be working fervently with the USDA agencies Agricultural Marketing Service, APHIS and National Institute of Food and Agriculture to make sure that the intent of Congress is followed through on and the gains made are properly deployed by the administrating agencies.
Dr. Joe Bischoff is Regulatory & Legislative Affairs Director for AmericanHort; he can be reached at joeb@AmericanHort.org.