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What’s in the Build Back Better Act for ag?

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GOVERNMENT SPENDING: President Biden unveiled his $6 trillion budget to Congress on May 28 that makes additional investments in climate-smart agriculture spending and rural broadband.
Reconciliation bill includes $28 billion for conservation, $2 billion for ag research and $12 billion for farmer debt relief.  

A week after the White House released a framework negotiated with fellow Democrats on the $1.75 trillion spending package, new details reveal billions of dollars for critical investments in agriculture and our rural communities, including new money for agricultural research, conservation funding to encourage climate smart agricultural practices and an expanded debt relief program for all USDA loan borrowers. Congress still needs to pass the bill as Democrats work to get enough Democrat member votes to advance the legislation. 

According to a fact sheet released by the House Agriculture Committee, the Build Back Better Budget Reconciliation bill will make timely investments that will “provide resources to mitigate climate change, improve quality of life in rural communities and commit millions of dollars to agricultural education across the country.”

Specifically, the bill provides $28.29 billion in historic investments to conservation programs and support for farmers and producers. The bill would provide $5 billion for Soil Conservation Assistance for producers who establish cover crops for soil health. Participating producers would receive payments equal to $25 an acre, up to 1,000 acres. Non-operating landowners would receive $5 an acre.

Traditional conservation programs would also see a boost, an idea welcomed by ag industry groups to help fund programs that historically have been overenrolled. An additional $9 billion is provided for the Environmental Quality Incentive Program; $3.75 billion for the Conservation Stewardship Program; $1.25 billion for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program; and $7.15 billion for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program.

The bill also would provide $200 million to fund conservation technical assistance through the Natural Resource Conservation Service; $50 million for NRCS and USDA’s regional climate hubs, and $600 million for NRCS to carryout out a carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas emissions quantification program.

“(T)his package offers a significant opportunity to increase funding for voluntary, incentive-and science-based climate and conservation programs,” according to the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance, comprising the nation’s largest farm and environmental advocacy organizations. “FACA supports investments in these programs to foster carbon capture and storage on farms and forests, reduce other greenhouse gas emissions and provide a host of additional environmental benefits, such as cleaner water and improved wildlife habitat.”  

Aria McLauchlan, co-founder and executive director of Land Core, adds, “Doubling funding for USDA conservation programs and doubling technical assistance funding is one of the fastest and most pragmatic ways to support rural communities and our nation’s producers, while building soil health, mitigating the impacts of flood, drought and other disasters, restoring biodiversity, ensuring our national food security and addressing climate change.”

Debt forgiveness

Earlier this year, the Democrat-only supported COVID relief bill, also known as the American Rescue Plan, included $6 billion for debt relief for farmers of color. However, courts put in place an injunction over challenges that it was discriminatory.

In an effort to offer debt relief to all farmers in need and resolve challenges in the courts, this bill diverts the $6 billion from the American Rescue Plan and adds an additional $6 billion to support new and existing farmers through outreach, education and technical assistance.

The support targets borrowers who for 90 days or more were delinquent on an eligible farm loan as of Dec. 31, 2020 or Apr. 30, 2021. It also offers those undergoing bankruptcy, foreclosure and other financial distressed categories as of July 31, 2021 to find relief. It also covers those who:

  • Received a USDA disaster set asides after Jan. 1, 2020
  • Restructured eligible farm debt on or after Jan. 1, 2020
  • Restructured eligible farm debt three or more times as of July 31, 2021
  • Owes more interest than principal on eligible farm debt as of July 31, 2021

All Farm Service Agency direct loan borrowers who do not fall in the above categories will have their debt paid off in full if the debt is equal to or lower than $150,000, or otherwise will receive a $150,000 payment. That $150,000 payment will be reduced by the total amount of money that borrower received from the Market Facilitation Program in calendar years 2018 and 2019 and the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program in calendar year 2020.

Ag research boost

The plan offers $2 billion in investments in agricultural research and infrastructure as other countries like China are outspending the U.S. on research investments and this money will help close the gap.

“This much-needed boost comes just in time; farmers need innovative solutions to handle the now-multiplying threats of climate change,” says Margaret Zeigler, interim president for the Supporters of Agricultural Research Foundation. “The $2 billion allocation should be the first step towards building a climate-resilient agricultural sector so that farmers and consumers alike can enjoy a brighter future.”

Zeigler adds that significant investment of $210 million in the competitive grants program, the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, was welcomed and will stimulate climate innovation across the country as a result. And $1 billion for research infrastructure will revamp aging facilities so that they can handle the demands of research in the coming years. The bill also provides $210 million for the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research and $120 million for the Sustainable Ag Research & Education.

“This additional funding will help the AFRI competitive grant programs close some of the massive funding gaps that exist for highly ranked agricultural research proposals while supporting more targeted research that builds climate resilience, improves food security and rural economic prosperity, and trains the next generation of the agricultural workforce to help meet these challenges,” says the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Coalition.

The research investments also include $1 billion for 1890 and 1994 Land-Grant and other minority serving institutions to ensure that MSIs have equitable resources for competitive research facilities.

“America’s Land-grant Universities, including the 1890 institutions, are uniquely positioned to address the climate challenges faced by American farmers, businesses, and communities,” says 1890 Universities Foundation President and CEO Dr. Mortimer Neufville. “The research and outreach services performed by 1890 institutions Colleges of Agriculture are foundational for America’s communities. Our nation’s agricultural research and innovation network is complimented by the Cooperative Extension System which transfers science-based information to individuals, businesses and communities. This system has a notable return on investment with $17 returned to the U.S. economy for every $1 invested.”

Additional provisions

In total, the Build Back Better plan includes over $18 billion in investments to help rural communities modernize their energy and water systems, ensure that residents of rural, tribal, and insular areas are able to thrive in their communities, and provide funding to support clean fuels. This includes $10 billion targeted for rural communities and rural electric co-ops to transition to renewable energy practices, providing jobs, and a more resilient and efficient energy grid.

The framework includes $1 billion in biofuels infrastructure investments in the Build Back Better budget reconciliation framework. Emily Skor, Growth Energy CEO, says the inclusion from this administration is an acknowledgment that “access to higher blends of biofuels at the pump makes a real difference in decarbonizing transportation.” says Skor.

It also offers $27.15 billion in investments in forestry programs to help combat forest fires and contribute to healthy, resilient forests.

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