Significant movement is underway for an important NACo priority — reauthorization of the nation’s farm legislation. In action June 10, the Senate approved a near-trillion dollar measure ($955 billion) — the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2013 (S. 954) — that would set farm policy for the next five years.
The vote, 66–27, indicated solid bipartisan support for the bill, which drew praise from Lu Barron, Linn County, Iowa supervisor and vice chair of NACo’s Rural Action Caucus (RAC). “I applaud the U.S. Senate for its bipartisan effort to pass the farm bill. The bill strengthens rural economic development programing, which fosters economic activity in rural America, and invests in rural infrastructure allowing our agricultural communities to remain viable,” Barron said.
Of special importance to counties are the bill’s sections on rural development, conservation initiatives, renewable energy development and support for new farmers and ranchers.
The Senate bill’s mandatory funding for the rural development title would include $150 million for financing water and wastewater projects, $62.5 million for the Value-Added Producer Grant Program and $15 million for the Rural Microenterprise Assistance Program. The bill also includes $800 million in mandatory funding for the Energy Title and $85 million for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program.
Also of interest is an amendment to the bill, sponsored by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), that would give USDA the flexibility to prioritize 20 percent of rural development funding to projects that are a part of multijurisdictional economic development strategies. This would help ensure that USDA focuses on the priorities identified by counties and their partners in their county, and multi-county economic development strategies.
“NACo had its fingerprints all over the rural development pieces,” RAC Chair Doris Karloff, Saunders County, Neb., said. “I am particularly happy to see the flexibility given to USDA funds.”
During floor consideration of the measure, more than 200 amendments were filed, including one filed by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) that would authorize a rural Internet pilot program to provide ultra-high-speed Internet to rural areas. The amendment was approved by a vote of 48–38.
The Senate’s action sat well with Yellowstone County, Mont. Commissioner Bill Kennedy: “A five-year bill is needed for ‘ag’ producers for stability in the ag industry. This is great for agriculture in Montana.”
With the final passage of the Senate farm bill, attention now turns to the House, where floor consideration of the chamber’s farm bill, titled the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013 (H.R. 1947), is set to begin as early as June 17.
The most significant difference between House and Senate versions of the farm bill lies in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly referred to as the food stamp program. While the Senate farm bill cuts approximately $4 billion from SNAP over five years, the House bill would implement almost $20.5 billion in cuts to the program over the same period. NACo opposes cuts to nutrition programs and will work to minimize cuts in any potential conference.