What the 2018 farm bill means for the West

Lawmakers see hemp legalization and conservation funding as the big wins.

 

Editor's note: On Dec. 20, 2018, President Donald J. Trump signed the farm bill into law. Read the final version here.

After a long journey through the Senate and House agriculture committees, the 2018 farm bill is expected to clear the president’s desk soon. The bill, which is projected to cost $428 billion over five years, is one of the largest spending packages in the country, doling out money for low-income nutrition assistance, crop insurance, commodity subsidies and conservation programs, among other things. 

Drafting the bill is usually a bipartisan process, but this year the funding package was held up by House Republicans trying to increase work requirements for recipients of the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, and a last-minute push from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to authorize more forest management activities on public lands.

But this week, the pressure to pass the legislation during Congress’s lame-duck session forced lawmakers to forego these more controversial moves in favor of getting the spending package signed into law. 

State Sen. Don Coram walks through his hemp field in Western Colorado.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

The resulting legislation has important implications for the West. Here are the key takeaways: 

It will be federally legal to grow hemp. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican poster child for industrial hemp, was able to pass his provision reclassifying the crop as a commodity into the final writing of the bill, which is big news for fledgling hemp growers in Western states like Colorado, Oregon and California. The crop is seen as a possible agricultural savior for farmers, but growth in the industry has been hampered by federal rules banning hemp growers from accessing water rights and bank loans. Now that industrial hemp will be legalized on the federal level, it will be easier for growers to cultivate the crop much like any other commodity, and qualify for benefits like crop insurance. Every state in the West except for Idaho allows the cultivation of hemp in some capacity, whether it is for research or commercial use. 

SNAP Benefits won’t come with stricter work requirements — for now. The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, provides monies to over 8.5 million residents in the West to pay for groceries. But a Republican House provision creating stricter work requirements would have resulted in 2 million people nationally losing access to the program, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan policy institute. After national outcry, these restrictions did not make it into the final language, leaving the program, for the most part, unchanged. But according to Politico, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is drafting a separate regulation, to be proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture after the farm bill passes, that would hamper states’ abilities to waive work requirements for some SNAP recipients. 

Farm-based conservation programs received good news, but at a cost. The bill preserved funding for the next five years for its main conservation programs: The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which provides financial incentives to farmers who increase conservation practices on their entire operations, and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which provides conservation tools to farmers on a smaller scale, paying for things like infrastructure upgrades, or soil and water improvement projects. Alyssa Charney, a senior policy specialist with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, an alliance of rural grassroots organizations, said both are important to promoting conservation on working lands in different ways, with CSP working to support conservation on an entire landscape and EQIP providing reimbursements to farmers for individual projects. 

But while the bill’s conservation title kept existing efforts running, the overall “wallet” for conservation programs will slim down starting in 2024, Charney said. In addition, while this bill didn’t drastically cut current conservation funding levels, it also didn’t make up for the $6 billion cuts in the last farm bill. “The biggest concern (of the bill) is the funding aspect,” Charney said. “We want to be setting ourselves up for future farm bills so that we can grow. The way that this bill funds those programs doesn’t do that.” 

In New Mexico and Colorado, some farming communities will get more help. Acequias, which are networks of communally-run irrigation ditches used in New Mexico and Colorado, will now be eligible for funding under EQIP, which means farmers can apply for monies for technical assistance and infrastructure improvements to aid in water conservation, among other benefits.

For Colorado’s Western slope, the farm bill holds another mini-victory. Overlooked in the passage of this ginormous spending package is the fact that Dolores County, population 2,064, located in the southwestern corner of Colorado, will be granted 4 acres of U.S. Forest Service land upon which to build a much-needed fire station. The new station will help the county, which is located near the San Juan National Forest, combat ever-more-frequent wildfires. According to a local news report, the station is also expected to lower homeowner’s insurance rates for residents.

Jessica Kutz is an editorial fellow for High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. 

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