After many months of negotiations, the farm bill was finally signed by the
President on April 4, 1996. The National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture
advanced its agenda all along the way, and can count a number of reforms as its
reward. The Campaign is an unprecedented coalition of some 500 groups working
together over nearly four years to support policies that encourage more
As the dust clears, the final components of what will be the nation’s farm
policy for the next seven years emerge. Here is a quick initial assessment of
• “Freedom to Farm” means farmers are finally free to plant what they want
(except for fruits and vegetables). A big barrier to sustainable farming has
been farm policy that required certain commodity crops like corn and wheat to be
planted year after year on the same ground. In an unexpected last minute
victory, even haying and grazing are allowed now, enabling farmers to use the
soil-building crop rotations so critical to sustainable farms.
• Financial incentives for soil and water conservation are beefed up and
consolidated in the new Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).
Funding is set at $200 million each year in guaranteed funds, with slightly less
the first year.
• The Conservation Reserve Program is reauthorized, allowing re-enrollments and
new enrollments up to the current level of 36 million acres. This is better
that almost anyone hoped for early on. A proposal for early land withdrawals is
severely limited to lands enrolled before 1990, and only if the land is not
• A Fund for Rural America is funded at $100 million a year for three years, to
be awarded as grants for rural development and research that increase farm
profitability, enhance natural resources and increase economic opportunities in
farming and rural communities.
• A new Conservation Farm Option provides $120 million over seven years for
innovative pilot projects, inviting sustainable farmers to get creative with a
whole farm plan that consolidates all commodity and conservation programs.
• The Wetlands Reserve is maintained, adding 650,000 acres to the current
325,000 acres. A third of the funds will go for permanent easements.
• The thorny issue of whether large livestock facilities should have access to
EQIP cost share money is deferred to the Secretary of Agriculture. Guidance
language suggests the program should be limited to herd sizes that don’t need a
water quality permit. Also, the Secretary will decide which farm practices are
most cost effective for the environment, and whether to help fund manure
• The use of whole farm plans to coordinate EQIP incentive payments became very
controversial, and in the end language is unclear, leaving it up to USDA to
write the rules.
• Current safeguards that prevent soil erosion and drainage of wetlands by
farmers in the farm program could be significantly weakened, if the Secretary of
Agriculture chooses to use his new authority to gut enforcement. A proposed
exemption for all small wetlands was refused, but other loopholes were enacted
outright. After seven years, if commodity programs are eliminated as planned,
these safeguards might be eliminated altogether.
• Permanent farm law is retained, ensuring that Congress must revisit the
planned phase out of farm programs in 2002.
• The Freedom to Farm commodity reform has a number of significant drawbacks.
Most important, over the next seven years the “safety net” for family farmers in
times of low prices or natural disasters is gradually eliminated.
• Perversely, over the seven year transition period, farmers will receive large
payments even when prices are high as they are now.
• Only one minor change was made to curtail payments to large-scale, wealthy, or
absentee farm owners. Current program inequities are continued during the seven
years of transition payments. New farmers are put at a special disadvantage,
because they are locked out of the program.
Senior Policy Analyst, The Minnesota Project
Canton, MN 55922
(507) 743-8300 Fax same
Chair, Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture