Climate Change,  Conservation,  Marketplace Equity,  Soil Health

Conservation, not Consolidation (Take Action!)

Over the last few weeks, we have been posting an educational ‘Farm Safety Net Fridays’ series on our Instagram page. This has all been leading up to a week of action titled: Conservation, not Consolidation. You may have seen a blog post from us a few weeks back about the farm safety net. In it, we outlined how some folks on Capitol Hill want to use climate-smart agriculture funding to prop up commodity programs.  

Some lawmakers in Congress are being pressured to raise commodity program subsidies by $20 to $50 billion. These include the Price Loss Coverage (PLC) program, which makes payments to commodity farms relative to a price floor, or a “reference price,” fixed in legislation. Just 0.3 percent of farms are projected to benefit most from an increase in PLC reference prices.  

It’s possible that this expensive proposal could be funded by cuts to other farm bill programs –namely, money allocated to conservation programs through the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). In 2020 and 2022, roughly 3 out of every 4 farmers who applied to CSP and EQIP were turned away due to a lack of funding. Even with IRA funds available beginning in FY2023, new reporting shows that this trend has continued.

This week, from April 15 to 19, is our week of action to advocate around protecting conservation funding! 

The Role of the Farm Safety Net

a graph showing how aspects of the farm safety net are divided amongst different programs

When the crop insurance and commodity programs were originally authorized in the 1930s, our country’s 6.8 million farms were mostly small and diversified. At the time, the safety net programs were perceived to support a large segment of our rural-based society, all while ensuring an abundant supply of food and fiber would be available at reasonable prices.  

A lot has changed since then. Over the last half-century, farm sizes and incomes have increased and there has been a shift toward more “market-oriented” safety net programs. While supporters argue that these farm safety net programs protect against volatility and provide stability for farmers, critics have argued that their policies are outdated, wasteful for taxpayers, and detrimental from an environmental perspective.   

Many farmers and food system advocates join the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) in desiring a farm safety net that’s functional, fair, and informed 

A Functional Farm Safety Net

There is a lot we can do to make the farm safety net more functional. This starts by improving safety net access for beginning, small to mid-sized, diversified, and specialty crop farmers who have historically been underserved by USDA programs. 

Improving accessibility to the Whole-Farm Revenue Protection (WFRP) program would help producers insure their entire operation (crop, livestock, nursery production) under a single policy. Participation is currently limited by complicated rules, paperwork burdens, farmer skepticism, and disinterest from insurance agents who can receive higher payments from policies with higher premiums. The Micro Farm option has made necessary improvements by streamlining paperwork and removing burdensome application requirements—yet there is a need for more agent knowledge regarding Micro Farm and WFRP products and more incentivization to sell policies with lower premiums. 

The Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program is a Farm Service Agency (FSA)-administered permanent disaster program for farmers unable to enroll in WFRP. It also offers free basic coverage for beginning, limited-resourced, and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. However, NAP applications for specialty crop producers are on the decline, from 95,000 in 2017 to just 54,000 in 2022. Enrollment decreases can be remedied by addressing FSA and USDA discrimination, building trust with producer groups, and making it easier for farmers to transition from NAP to WFRP.   

Lastly, a functional farm safety net should align with USDA’s definition of beginning farmers (those who have operated a farm or ranch for 10 years or less). In doing so, it would expand the 10% premium discount for crop insurance. 

Modern farm policy should keep farmers farming in the case of unforeseeable disaster, but it is failing most U.S. producers.

National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition

A Fair Farm Safety Net

America’s largest 10% of farms with the highest crop sales receive almost 65% of crop insurance subsidies. There is a clear need to level the playing field by ensuring responsible use of public funds. One option is to implement a means test for crop insurance. The federal crop insurance program is currently the only farm subsidy program without any payment cap or means test. A means test determines if an individual or household is eligible to receive federal payments.  

Secondly, we need more transparency from the USDA in disclosing the companies and farmers that receive crop insurance subsidies. Crop insurance subsidies were at an all-time high at $19.13 billion in 2023 which increased from $11.6 billion in 2022.  

a graph showing participation rates for crop insurance policies based on farm size

On top of all of this, reforms are needed to address loopholes that allow farms to double-dip into these programs. This also includes non-farmers who are not “actively engaged” in the farm business. A 2020 USDA rule established that family members must personally spend 1,000 hours, or 50% of total hours, contributing to the farm, or spend 500 hours (25%) regularly managing the farm to receive these payments. However, in November 2020, the Trump Administration exempted all “family farms” (which encompasses 98% of all U.S. farms) from this rule, making very large farms with absentee landowners eligible for commodity payments.  

In Informed Farm Safety Net

To expand access to our farm safety net we must listen to the voices of small and mid-sized, diversified producers. Promoting holistic risk management to improve on-farm resilience will reduce dependence on federal subsidies. To make our farm safety net truly successful, there must be multiple approaches in our ever-changing climate. Currently, there are a couple of boundaries preventing this from happening.  

For example, crop insurance rules and guidelines are often in conflict with conservation-minded farmers. To qualify for crop insurance coverage, producers must adhere to Risk Management Agency (RMA) guidance on cover crop termination, which can disincentivize against the adoption of conservation practices. Similarly, full crop insurance coverage guarantees are mandated by planting dates that are the same for organic and conventional producers—even when organic farmers often plant later.  

In our network, the farm safety net is more than just the actual government programs. Many Ohio farmers diversify their crops to stay resilient in the face of the climate crisis—this protection must be taken into our own hands.  

Farm safety net reforms should incentivize farmers to manage risk through diversification, conservation, and soil health practices, potentially through a crop insurance premium discount. The diversification of crops is a clear way that a lot of farmers can have a safer bottom line. 

By the farm being very diverse, you know, I don’t have all my eggs in one basket. So, I don’t feel that I have a need for [crop insurance] and that it would be cost-effective for me… because of all of the crop diversification I have.

Ed Snavely, Curly Tail Organic Farm

The farm safety net is important to all of us and must be informed by all voices. We need more education at the RMA to help employees better serve organic and small diverse clients in using conservation practices and accessing the farm safety net.  

Help Protect Climate-Smart Funding

Bipartisan negotiations have stalled in this next farm bill as lawmakers are being pressured to cut billions from popular climate-friendly conservation programs—the kind of incentives that all farmers can use to build strong and diverse farms—to instead raise subsidies for less than 0.3 percent of the largest and highest-income commodity farms. Make your voice heard this week. Tell Congress we want our tax dollars to fund proven conservation programs that build resilient food systems, not giveaways that exclude most farmers and fuel farmland consolidation. 

We’ve made calling and emailing your lawmakers as easy as possible. Tailored call scripts and automated email templates are provided, and you will be connected only when you are ready.  

Click here to take action!