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The saga of the Federal Farm Bill (AKA ‘Food Bill’, which is what local food advocates prefer to call it), has reached a new level of uncertainty. The Senate approved a new Farm Bill, which continued most of the important reforms made in the 2008 Farm Bill, added some important provisions that promote local healthy food, made some specific positive changes in farm subsidies to redirect them towards smaller farmers, and included minimal reductions in the food stamp program ($400 million per year). Unfortunately, the House bill made major cuts in food stamps ($2 billion per year), and then was voted down by a combination of Democrats who opposed food stamp cuts and Republicans who wanted to cut them even more. The Senate is unlikely to back down on its priorities, while the House is mired in confusion.

The usual course when the two Chambers cannot agree is to pass legislation that simply extends the current bill for a period of time while further negotiations take place. This already happened last year on the Farm Bill. However, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has rejected following this course again, noting that the Senate bill was approved by a 2 to 1 margin, while the House has not been able to pass anything at all. The current legislation expires on September 30.

While the Senate bill did not go as far as reformers would like in reducing subsidies to major crops and redirecting priorities towards a wider variety of food that is healthier and more sustainable, it was broadly acceptable to most of the coalition of advocates for change. Among the new programs, for example, was a research fund to help farmers who grow beans and lentils, an important source of healthy protein. This provision was sponsored by Senator Maria Cantwell and would greatly benefit the many Washington farmers who are switching to these crops.

Democrats in the House were unhappy with the cuts in food stamps, but some of them might have been willing to go along with the legislation approved by the House Agriculture Committee as a way of getting the bill into conference in hopes that the result would have been legislation closer to the Senate model. However, Republicans added a floor amendment that would have added additional work requirements to food stamps – with, of course, no assistance to people to get training or find jobs.

The Farm Bill has long been a bipartisan effort, with urban representatives supporting the food stamp benefits and rural representatives supporting farm subsidies, while recognizing that food stamps also benefit not only those who receive them, but the farmers who grow the food. Unfortunately, this coalition has broken down in recent years, partly over efforts to reform the subsidy programs by redirecting them towards smaller farms and different crops, but mostly because the new breed of extremely conservative Republicans would prefer to have people go hungry rather than continue to fund programs that assist those in need.

Washington State offers a brighter side for local food advocates, as the State budget adopted by the Legislature and signed by the Governor includes $250,000 for Small Farm Direct Marketing and Farm to School programs. A strong coalition of farm and food organizations worked hard to get these items into the budget, and they will make a big difference in making local food more accessible and available and in supporting our Washington farmers.