Priorities for a Strong Farm Bill

As Congress begins debate over the next Farm Bill, Senator Gillibrand, the first New Yorker to serve on the Senate Agriculture Committee in nearly 40 years, will ensure that the voices of New York’s farmers are heard. As New York is home to over 35,000 farms that stretch across 7.1 million acres and generate over $4 billion for the state’s economy; Senator Gillibrand plans to focus on key areas of the Farm Bill that will have major influence on New York, including access to financing, new market opportunities, assistance for specialty crops, and investments in renewable energy.  From dairy farms, black dirt farms, and apple orchards to vineyards, artisanal cheeses, and other specialty crops, New York farmers and communities will have a lot to gain in the next Farm Bill.

Over the past year, Senator Gillibrand held listening sessions in agricultural communities in every corner of New York to listen to concerns and discuss ideas to make sure the next Farm Bill is good for New York. From the Lower Hudson Valley, to the North Country and from the Capital Region to Western New York, Senator Gillibrand listened as farmers expressed their concerns on the issues they face daily. With this information in hand, Senator Gillibrand was able to construct a comprehensive plan that would allow the next Farm Bill to be beneficial to the Agriculture industry of New York.


Dairy Reform

Dairy Pricing
Farmers have been paid for their milk through a complicated, regionally-based system called the Federal Milk Marketing Order (FMMO).  This system was initially developed to price milk based on demand, but because price triggers were not transparent to the average producer, and prices were announced on a month delay, this made farmers unable to respond to the market and extreme volatility in both production and income to farmers. 

Senator Gillibrand is working to include the Dairy Pricing Reform and Farmer Protection Act in the next Farm Bill, legislation that she authored that would reform the FMMO system to improve transparency and price discovery. Senator Gillibrand has outlined the types of reforms necessary to simplify and improve the pricing structure, and has instructed the USDA to evaluate these reforms through the regulatory hearing process. Pricing alternatives, such as a competitive pay pricing system, would more directly tie pricing to demand, by reducing the manipulation of markets and inherent volatility in the current end-product pricing system.  Senator Gillibrand’s proposal also directs the USDA to evaluate the merits of moving from the current four-class system for characterizing dairy products to a two-class system ( fluid milk and processed dairy products).  Lastly, Senator Gillibrand’s proposal directs the USDA to develop a more transparent price discovery methodology.

Dairy Safety Net
Dairy farmers have relied on the Milk Income Loss Contract (MILC) program to help make ends meet when prices are low.  Senator Gillibrand is working to combine the benefits of MILC with the structure of a margin based insurance policy to provide dairy farmers with a safety net when the cost of feed is high and market prices are low.  Her proposal would especially benefit small and medium-sized farms by ensuring payments for 90 percent of production when the margin between feed and market prices is less than $6, up to the current MILC production limit.  It will also help larger farms by ensuring they also receive payment when the margin is less than $4. 

Market Stabilization
Senator Gillibrand is concerned about a market stabilization program that allows large producers to opt out.  Therefore, her proposal includes a fair stabilization program - applied evenly to all milk producers - that would reduce overproduction in areas with low demand.  This would allow New York farmers to continue to grow in response to market demand for their product and would require larger farms in regions without a large population to curtail production if there is no market for milk.

Supporting Specialty Crops
Specialty Crops generate nearly $1.4 billion for New York’s economy each year, making up one-third of New York’s agriculture industry. New York ranks in the top three nationally for production and value of apples, cabbage and grapes. Last year, New York produced 40 million tons of fresh fruits and vegetables, valued at more than $730 million.

To continue supporting New York’s specialty crop farmers, Senator Gillibrand is fighting to protect Specialty Crop Block Grants that help ensure long-term viability of specialty crops, which include fruits, vegetables, maple, honey and horticulture products.

The current Farm Bill provides $55 million each year in grants that support research, grower education, consumer outreach and market development. New York receives over $1 million each year in this funding. 

Connecting Fresh Produce with New Markets – Combating Food Deserts
More than 20 million people live in areas known as “food deserts,” areas that are out of reach of a supermarket, particularly common in communities of color, low income communities, and rural areas. This is a major barrier for families to reach fresh, nutritious food they need to lead healthy lives, and blocks the economic benefits of local supermarkets, such as jobs and associated retail.

Senator Gillibrand is fighting for the Healthy Food Financing Initiative to help bring more grocery stores, farmers markets, food cooperatives and other options within reach by providing one time start-up grants and affordable loan financing.

The legislation sets requirements for the types of projects that are eligible for funding.  Minority and women-owned businesses would be given priority in funding, along with projects that would provide wages and benefits equal or better than that of comparable businesses in the same area, and include local hiring agreements.

The legislation also has the ability to create and save hundreds and thousands of jobs. An analysis by The Reinvestment Fund (TRF), a Community Development Financial Institution in Pennsylvania, estimates that a $1 billion public-private initiative could create over 1,000 grocery store projects in underserved communities across the nation; provide access to healthy food for over 15 million people; and create almost 45,000 direct, long-term, full-time equivalent jobs and nearly 50,000 new construction jobs.

Additionally, Senator Gillibrand is working to fix the process for locating and mapping food deserts. Senator Gillibrand has been in contact with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack and Deputy Undersecretary Anne Wright, calling their attention to errors with the USDA’s food desert mapping tools, which failed to capture a large portion of New York’s food deserts, including in Harlem, the Bronx, Central Brooklyn and sections of Queens.

As another effort to help connect farms with markets in need of fresh produce, Senator Gillibrand is working to improve the infrastructure that connects them. New York City is home to Hunt’s Point Terminal Produce Market, the largest produce distribution center in America, serving 22 million people and selling $2 billion worth of produce from around the world each year. But the surrounding infrastructure to reach the facility is outdated and in need of repair. This prevents farms in upstate New York, and across America, from harnessing the full potential of New York City to reach new markets and help their businesses thrive.

Currently, the USDA is limited in the support it can provide for these projects. Senator Gillibrand is working to enhance regional food system infrastructure funding to strengthen available resources that support projects that connect farm communities to new markets.

Increasing Access to Farmers Markets
Current participants of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are unable to use these benefits at farmers markets because farmers markets typically lack the wired Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) terminals  that process SNAP funds. This adds another barrier to fresh, nutritious produce for families in need, and farmers lose out on this business at their markets.

Senator Gillibrand is pushing to change this by providing farmers markets and other non-traditional retailers with wireless, mobile technology that can enable EBT terminals and process SNAP payments.

New York is home to roughly 520 farmers markets, second only to California. More than 2.5 million New Yorkers received SNAP benefits in 2010. Connecting SNAP recipients with farmers markets can help these individuals lead healthier lives with better access to fresh produce, and help support this business for our state’s farmers.

Strengthening Conservation
Environmental conservation is critical to helping farms guard against soil erosion, enhance water supplies and improve water quality, increase wildlife habitat and reduce damage caused by floods and other natural disasters. These protections help keep farms in business, while also protecting New York’s vast natural beauty.

Senator Gillibrand is working to protect the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) that helps provide farmers with the resources they need to plan and implement conservation efforts. Eligible land includes cropland, rangeland, pastures, non-industrial and private forestland.

In 2010, New York received more than $16.6 million in EQIP funds to support Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative, the Great Lake Restoration Initiative, and other efforts.

Additionally, Senator Gillibrand will also work to support the Conservation on Muck Soils (COMS) program. Muck soils are highly organic and valuable for their natural ability to produce high yields, and require significantly less commercial fertilizers than crops grown on other soil types. Muck soils are found in limited locations across the country, including New York. 

The COMS program provides up to $500 per acre for muck soil farmers who implement specific soil conservation practices that can significantly reduce wind and water erosion, and protect this rare and valuable soil.

Bolstering Community Supported Agriculture
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a renowned and proven system that directly connects consumers with the farmers who grow their food. At the beginning of each growing season, members of CSA pay for a share of a farm’s produce. Throughout the season, members receive a weekly box containing their share of the farm’s yield for that week. There are more than 12,000 CSA farms currently operating throughout the United States and approximately 350 in New York alone. Both numbers are expected to rise steadily in the coming years.

Senator Gillibrand’s Community Supported Agriculture Promotion Act would establish a competitive grant program to award federal funds to non-profit organizations, extension services, and state and local government agencies to provide grower support – ranging from marketing and business assistance to crop development – to new or current CSA farmers, as well as assist in the development of innovative delivery and distribution programs. These efforts can help attract more consumers to CSA, facilitate the formation of multi-farm CSA arrangements, and promote participation in CSA through outreach and education activities.  Preference would be given to projects working with family farms, farms operated by or employing veterans – a provision authored by Senator Gillibrand – and those that expand CSA reach into food deserts.

Increasing Access to Credit
Like all small businesses, family farms are struggling to secure the financing they need to grow or, in many cases, survive in this difficult economy. Senator Gillibrand is introducing the Agricultural Credit Expansion Act to increase access to credit, and make lending more flexible for farms.

The legislation would streamline and modernize the Farm Services Agency (FSA) loan program to keep pace with the business practices of family farms, and cutting the red tape that currently stands between family farms and the financing they need to thrive.

Senator Gillibrand has also been a strong supporter of the Rural Access to Credit Act, legislation that would enhance the USDA Business and Industry Guaranteed Loan Program by reducing red tape for participating small businesses, raising the loan guarantee level so small businesses can access more capital and making the program easier for community banks to use while expanding their lending capability in rural areas.

Ending Term Limits for FSA Support
The 1996 Farm Bill included limits to the number of years a producer can receive assistance through the FSA Loan Programs. Borrowers in the direct loan program are limited to 7 years of assistance, and 15 years of assistance in the guaranteed loan program.

Still reeling from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, family farms need our full support, and shouldn’t be held back by arbitrary limits. Over the next 3 years, 3,500 farmers and ranchers are projected to reach the limit of their FSA loans.

Senator Gillibrand is working to end these term limits for all FSA loans, an effort that would bring immediate relief to more than 4,000 farmers and ranchers.

Expanding Access to Rural Broadband

Less than one-third of rural Americans have access to broadband, including large portions of upstate New York. Approximately 300,000 New Yorkers lack access to wireline broadband, and 60,000 lack access to wireless broadband.

To increase access to broadband in rural areas, Senator Gillibrand has championed legislation that would create a new competitive rural broadband grant program to provide adequate resources to private sector providers as well as state and local governments, institutions of higher education, and nonprofit economic development organizations to expand broadband access to underserved rural areas. To make broadband funding programs more accessible and user-friendly, she has also supported the creation of a one-stop-shop in the federal government to acquire funding and resources to deliver high-speed Internet to businesses and families currently cut off from such service, as well as streamlining of broadband grant and loan programs to expedite application processing times and eliminate any duplicative or unnecessary application or audit requirements.

Increasing broadband access by just 7 percent nationally would create 2.4 million new jobs across America, according to a study by Connected Nation. Broadband access is also the first step to implementing health care IT, technology that can cut medical costs, reduce medical errors and save lives.


Nutrition—Saving Food Stamps from Deficit Reduction Budget cuts

Senator Gillibrand has led fifteen of her Senate colleagues on the following letter to save SNAP (food stamps) 

Dear Super Committee Member,                

We write to you as a member/chair of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction to implore you to protect our nation’s anti-hunger programs. Specifically, we ask that you not find cost savings in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) since this program is a true safety net for America’s lowest income and neediest families. If this critical lifeline is not protected, more children, seniors, low-income working parents and unemployed people will go hungry.                

Last December, the President’s bi-partisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform developed deficit reduction recommendations to reduce the federal deficit without cutting funding for anti-hunger programs. The Commission’s final recommendations for deficit reduction totaling $4 trillion over 10 years made no cuts to our nation’s nutrition programs such as SNAP and the child nutrition programs. Similarly, the Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of Six” deficit reduction plan also totaled $4 trillion over 10 years without cutting into SNAP or any other critical anti-hunger programs. In fact, the “Gang of Six” plan explicitly precluded the Agriculture Committee from cutting SNAP funding when making deficit reduction recommendations.                

There has never been a more important time to protect SNAP, the critical anti-hunger program that makes sure that all Americans in need can have food on their dinner tables. Millions of individuals and families continue to struggle with poverty and hunger. There were 46.2 million people in poverty in 2010, up from 43.6 million in 2009 ? the fourth consecutive annual increase and the largest number in the 52 years for which poverty estimates have been published. 49 million people live in food insecure households, according to USDA and the Census Bureau.  These statistics mean that every day Americans find themselves without enough food to feed their families. SNAP saves families from going hungry.                

In addition to lifting families out of poverty and keeping children from going hungry, SNAP offers a stimulus to local economies. USDA reports that for every SNAP dollar spent, there is a $1.79 return to the economy.

The deficit reduction plan should not—and need not--increase hunger and poverty.

Thank you for your attention to this critical issue.                                                                                                                                                                  


Nutrition—Senator Gillibrand’s Nutrition Farm Bill Priorities

Background: USDA now reports that 49 million Americans now live in food insecure homes. In New York, 702,000 people live in households experiencing hunger, the highest level recorded for the state since the federal government began collecting such data in the mid-1990s. The nation’s official poverty rate in 2010 was 15.1 percent, up from 14.3 percent in 2009 ? the third consecutive annual increase in the poverty rate. The number of New York State residents that live below the poverty line ($18,310 for a family of three) increased by 11% from the 2007-2008 time period to the 2009-2010 time period, according to new federal Census data released earlier this month. In the richest country in the world, this state of affairs is simply disgraceful. The Nutrition title of the Farm bill is the funding source for essential hunger programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). Benefits under SNAP are based on the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan, which is the least expensive of four food plans developed by USDA’s Human Nutrition Information Services. 

Proposal: Senator Gillibrand has proposed an increase for SNAP benefits from the “thrifty” food plan to the “low cost” food plan in order to help families purchase food for the entire month, not just the first couple of weeks. This could increase the monthly benefit for a family of four with two small children by roughly $144.  USDA has reported that the average food insecure household facing hunger spent $11 per week less on food than the average household that didn’t face hunger.  It is clear that too few Americans in need receive SNAP, and that the average benefit size is too small. In New York, and other higher-cost housing states, this situation is made worse by the fact that the cap on excess shelter deduction is too low, further impacting the level of adequate benefits. Senator Gillibrand is fighting to adjust this problematic cap to better address higher housing costs in different parts of the country. 

Fifty percent of all American children will at some point be beneficiaries of SNAP (food stamps). Additionally, for every dollar spent on SNAP, $1.80 is reinvested into the U.S. economy. The Census Bureau just released new poverty data showing that SNAP has lifted 3.9 Million Americans above the poverty line.  New York was the state where SNAP made the largest percentage point difference in lifting households above 101 percent of the poverty level. These programs are effective in fighting poverty. During these difficult economic times, our communities need us to do the right thing and increase federal support of these critical hunger programs. Senator Gillibrand is fighting  to include these proposals in the 2012 Farm Bill.