From hemp to organic foods, farm bill embraces change in rural US

Why We Wrote This

Passage of the farm bill is a rite of Congress that often borders on the arcane. But this year’s version signals how American farming is gradually embracing a vision beyond the industrial model.

Bruce Schreiner/AP
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (l.), inspects a piece of hemp taken from a bale at a processing plant in Louisville, Ky., in July. The 2014 farm bill included pilot programs for hemp growing, and Senator McConnell pushed for the new farm bill to make hemp a legal agricultural commodity.

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To some degree, Congress’s periodic review of agriculture programs tends to be more about continuity than change. This year’s follows the pattern, avoiding big cuts to food stamps and helping Farm Belt communities weather a multiyear decline in income. But the five-year farm bill also embodies more than its share of new thinking. A 1937 ban on growing industrial hemp, a non-hallucinatory form of marijuana, will be lifted, assuming the bill is signed into law as expected. The measure also has initiatives that boost organic farming, crop diversity, and advanced conservation methods. And in a separate sign of the times, McDonald’s said Tuesday it’s aiming to reduce its use of beef raised on antibiotics. As a result, Americans are likely to see more diversity in crop production, more help to organic farmers and farmers markets, and more experimentation with advanced cropping and grazing methods that improve soil and water quality. That doesn’t mean the bill is a U-turn against the factory-farm model. But Alyssa Charney, of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, says “there are definitely policy gains.”

Every five years or so, Congress passes a farm bill, which offers a peek into the future of agriculture.

This year’s bipartisan version, while mostly aimed at stabilizing the status quo, nevertheless offers changes and new initiatives that boost organic farming, crop diversity, and advanced conservation. And for the first time in decades, it allows US farmers to produce industrial hemp, a non-hallucinatory version of marijuana.

The Senate passed the compromise bill 87-13 on Tuesday, and the House followed suit Wednesday with a 369-47 vote.

Separately, McDonald’s, the nation’s largest purchaser of beef, announced Tuesday it was aiming to reduce its use of beef raised on antibiotics.

Together, these moves suggest that commercial agriculture is expanding beyond a factory model of farming to embrace more geographically and environmentally sensitive approaches to producing food and fiber. As a result, Americans are likely to see more diversity in crop production, more help to organic farmers and farmers markets, and more experimentation with advanced cropping and grazing methods that improve soil and water quality.

“The farm bill is becoming more flexible to provide a reasonable amount of support” to farmers, says Dale Moore, executive vice president of the American Farm Bureau Federation in Washington and former chief of staff at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Mostly, the legislation is aimed at helping farmers deal with a multiyear decline in income – as well as maintaining SNAP benefits (food stamps) for 38.6 million low-income Americans. But beyond that, the bill includes some innovations that should begin to influence the way the United States produces food.

Hemp for consumer products

One of the most striking changes in the farm bill is the move to allow the production of industrial hemp. Outlawed in 1937, at least in part because of its close connection to other marijuana species, the commodity has gained renewed interest, especially in tobacco-growing areas such as Kentucky and North Carolina, where the plant thrives.

Though hemp fibers can be used to create clothing and other products, market analysts expect the biggest growth to come from hemp-derived cannabidiol, or CBD, which is used in health and wellness products such as supplements. Operating in a legal gray area, the CBD market has already grown to $590 million, says Bethany Gomez, director of research at Brightfield Group, a research firm based in Chicago. “We expect by 2022, with this full legalization, [for] that market to hit $22 billion.”

The bill continues Congress’s move away from providing money to grow specific quantities of crops and instead helps to reduce farmer risk by subsidizing crop insurance. This year’s farm bill extends that support to the dairy industry, which has been struggling with low milk prices, and to second-tier crops, such as barley, which can be used to feed livestock or as a cover crop during the winter – a nod to growing concerns about soil degradation from traditional farming.

The bill also increases support to organic farming by establishing permanent funding for research to the tune of $50 million a year by 2023, up from $20 million. It also funds research for organic farming challenges and relieves some of the costs for small and beginning farmers to get certified organic. The Organic Trade Association called the provisions “an historic milestone” in a statement Tuesday.

Other support for small-scale farming includes permanent (it was temporary in the prior farm bill) funding for promoting local farmers markets.

Give-and-take over conservation

For sustainable farming groups, the House-Senate compromise bill represents more of a mixed bag. They are relieved the final bill did not include a House measure that would have eliminated the Conservation Stewardship Program, which helps farmers expand their conservation practices. But funding for the program will be cut so that by 2023 the program will get $800 million a year less than what it got in the last year of the previous farm program.

Nevertheless, there will be more money for farmers using advanced conservation practices, such as growing cover crops (reimbursed at 125 percent of the farmer’s costs) and resource conserving crop rotations and advanced grazing practices (both at 150 percent of costs). The new bill also establishes a Clean Lakes, Estuaries, and Rivers (CLEAR) Initiative, which is aimed at protecting drinking water and waterways from pesticide and fertilizer runoff.

“It's not black and white,” says Alyssa Charney, a senior policy specialist for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, a Washington-based alliance of grass-roots sustainability groups. “There are definitely policy gains.”

From McDonald’s, ‘progress’ on antibiotics

The McDonald’s announcement that it will restrict its use of antibiotic-fed beef represents a big win for consumer advocates of natural food, who had already pushed McDonald’s and major poultry producers to stop the practice with chicken. The fast-food chain said it will begin monitoring the use of antibiotics in the US and nine other nations that supply most of its beef. By 2020, it will set reduction targets.

“This is progress, but we still have a ways to go,” says Matthew Wellington, antibiotics program director for U.S. PIRG Education Fund, a nonprofit that works for consumers and the public interest. Some 70 percent of antibiotics used for human health actually go to farmers, who feed them to their livestock and poultry to speed their growth. “In five years, the industry will start to move away from antibiotics for animals,” he adds.  

Of course, neither CEOs nor legislators can foresee everything.

“Things change,” says Mr. Moore of the American Farm Bureau Federation. The last farm bill, for example, didn’t imagine that US farmers, especially soybean and pork producers, would be reeling from a trade war with China.

That is the reason the new bill combines some existing export-promotion programs. “The money is not significantly more, but the secretary [of agriculture] has been given some flexibility” to create new markets for US farm goods, Moore says. “It gives us some hope” that the US can begin to make up for the potential loss of Chinese markets. 

Bailey Bischoff contributed to this report from Washington.

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