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Feb 2013
05
February 05, 2013

Will Congress address Farm Bill this year?


As the nation watched Congress travel toward the fiscal cliff and then yawned at its now standard “kick the can down the road” approach to government action, another piece of key national legislation suffered the same fate: the Agriculture, Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012, more commonly known as the 2012 Farm Bill.

Traditionally, Congress revisits agriculture policy every five years and enacts comprehensive legislation to deal with topics relating to agriculture, land and natural resources.  Although the 2012 Farm Bill deals with such direct farm topics as subsidy payments and crop insurance, it also impacts land preservation, environmental regulation, energy policy and natural resource development. For example, the 2012 Farm Bill proposed to continue the federal government’s program encouraging conservation easements and wetland preservation. The easement program not only affects agricultural land, but also has a direct impact on the availability of land for commercial or industrial use.

Despite bi-partisan support, Congress ignored passage of the 2012 Farm Bill and instead, as a stopgap measure, extended, with some limited exceptions, the provisions of the 2008 farm bill. Thus, debate will continue this year in the effort to enact a new farm bill, and that debate will include environmental preservation, environmental protection, energy and natural resource development features.  The proposed 2012 Farm Bill will likely be the starting point.

Here is a summary of key environmental and resource provisions in the 2012 Farm Bill:

Title II – Conservation
  • With respect to land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, the 2012 Farm Bill shifts responsibility for authorizing permitted activities, including the installation of wind turbines, from the landowner to the Secretary of Agriculture (Section 2004).
  • The 2012 Farm Bill continues the authorization of the Secretary to acquire for value, permanent or 30-year term wetland easements and places a priority on wetlands valuable for migratory bird and wildlife habitat  (Section 2301).
Title VI – Rural Development
  • The bill reauthorizes grants and loans for the development of waste and wastewater facilities in rural communities, with communities of less than 5,500 in population receiving priority for funding (Section 3501).
  • The bill authorizes a new loan program for electric cooperatives to provide funds to customers for energy efficient improvements to structures (Section 6202).
Title VIII – Forestry
  • The bill extends the Office of International Forestry program and provides funding for stopping the trade of illegal, non-domestic forest products and funding for the prevention of invasive species entering the country through the non-domestic forest products (Section 8202).
Title IX – Energy
  • The bill reauthorized the Bioenergy Program for Advanced Biofuels at $20 million per year.  Under the program, advanced biofuels are produced from renewable biomass crops such as cellulose, sugar and starch (other than ethanol derived from corn kernel starch), hemicelluloses, lignin, waste materials, biogas, butanol, diesel-equivalent fuel, sugarcane, and nonfood crops such as poplar trees or switchgrass (Section 9005).
  • The bill created a tiered application process for grants under the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) which provides grants to small rural businesses for energy efficiency and other programs.  The Farm Bill also reauthorized funding for REAP at $20 million per year (Section 9007).
  • Related to additional biomass energy research, the 2012 Farm Bill reauthorizes the program at $30 million per year, with mandatory funding of $26 million per year (Section 9008).
It remains uncertain whether Congress will modify the 2012 Farm Bill, propose completely new farm bill legislation or, again, wait until the final bell and simply extend the 2008 farm bill another year.

What is certain, however, is that Congress will have to address the features of the 2012 Farm Bill this year, including land preservation, environmental regulation, energy and natural resource development. Congressional action or inaction in 2013 will affect Michigan’s farmers, developers, bio-fuel energy producers and its forestry industry.  The 2013 farm bill debate deserves monitoring and active input by all concerned.

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