Our region is home to some of America’s finest poultry, produce, and grain crops. Delaware’s vibrant agricultural industry supports 30,000 jobs and contributes $8 billion each year to our economy. That’s why Congress’ reauthorization of the farm bill has been one of my highest priorities in my time in the Senate.
It’s been a tough, long road, but last week Congress came together to approve a comprehensive, five-year farm bill that provides long-awaited certainty to our farmers. The new law supports Delaware’s farmers and poultry growers by strengthening crop insurance and investing in critical conservation and rural energy programs that help them produce sustainably. The farm bill also reduces our deficit by $23 billion by eliminating unnecessary direct payment subsidies, consolidating programs to end duplication, and cracking down on food assistance abuse.
While it’s far from perfect, this compromise legislation takes important steps to strengthen America’s farm policy and contains a number of important provisions that benefit Delawareans specifically.
To help Delaware’s poultry growers during uncertain economic times, the bill includes a provision I wrote with Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) to commission a pair of studies on the feasibility of poultry insurance programs. These studies will explore the potential for insurance programs to help protect poultry farmers from catastrophic losses like disease outbreaks, and from bankruptcies of poultry integrators.
The bill also includes $500 million for the Rural Energy for America Program, which helps poultry growers, rural businesses, and farmers conduct energy audits and install renewable energy and energy efficiency programs. In 2012, the program funded two successful projects to improve energy efficiency in Kent County and deploy solar power in Sussex County. I hope this funding can be used in the future to help Delaware’s poultry growers cut energy costs and make beneficial efficiency upgrades to their facilities.
To spur renewable energy development, the bill includes $879 million in mandatory funding for USDA renewable energy and biofuels programs over the next 10 years. The bill also expands the Biorefinery Assistance Program to include renewable chemical and bio-based product manufacturing – which could benefit Delaware’s innovative chemical industry as much as it could benefit our farmers – and authorizes $200 million over 10 years for the program.
To help our produce farmers stay competitive, the bill increases funding for research focused on strengthening crop resiliency and increasing crop yields. Funding for Specialty Crop Block Grants will increase to $72.5 million/year in mandatory funding through FY17, and $85 million/year thereafter. Delaware received nearly $230,000 in funding from this program for five projects last year, and will receive approximately $351,000 in FY14.
Finally, the bill invests in the conservation of our natural resources by ensuring that the Chesapeake Bay will remain eligible to compete for conservation funding under the new Regional Conservation Partnership Program. A recent USDA report shows that conservation practices adopted by farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed have resulted in significant nutrient pollution reductions since 2006.
A new conservation easement program created by the bill will also help Delaware farmers continue to preserve our working farmlands. Delaware received $4.9 million for agricultural land preservation through the 2008 version of this program that has helped farmers preserve tens of thousands of acres of farmland across the state.
For the farmers that work so hard to feed America, uncertainty is a given. Risk and instability are inherent in an industry dependent on the land. The least Congress can do is fulfill its obligation to provide stable governance, so that farmers know where laws, regulations, and funding are going to be now and into the future. That’s what this long-term farm bill does, while investing in important priorities and cutting wasteful spending.
I’m proud of the job Delaware’s hard-working farmers do each day and I’m hopeful this strong, bipartisan farm bill will help them continue to provide for American families.
Chris Coons is a U.S. Senator from Delaware. He serves on both the Appropriations Committee and the Budget Committee.