Although implementation at the local level won’t come until staff is trained and it’s time to begin applications for a new round of agricultural support, the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, signed into law in December, makes few major changes in agricultural and food policy, according to a summary of the act published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Crop insurance options and agricultural commodity programs will exist much as under the 2014 Farm Act, and all major conservation programs are continued. Those programs are administered locally by the Farm Service Agency, 201 N. Collegiate Drive, Suite 500, and the Lamar Soil and Water Conservation District, at the same location. All major conservation programs are continued, although some are modified significantly. Programs are expanded for trade, research and extension, energy, specialty crops, organic agriculture, local and regional foods, and beginning/socially disadvantaged/veteran farmers and ranchers, the summary states.
According to the summary, the 2018 Farm Act increases FY2019-FY2023 spending by $1.8 billion (less than 1%) above the level projected for a continuation of the previous farm act. The Congressional Budget Office projects that 76% of outlays under the 2018 Farm Act will fund nutrition programs, 9% will fund crop insurance programs, 7% will fund conservation programs, 7% will fund commodity programs, and the remaining 1% will fund all other programs, including trade, credit, rural development, research and extension, forestry, horticulture and miscellaneous programs.
The law gives new emphasis to rural health issues, particularly substance abuse by setting aside 20% of distance learning and telemedicine funds for projects providing treatment services for substance abuse. Priority will be given community applications that provide facilities for services designed to prevent, treat and assist in the recovery from substance abuse, and to the Rural Health and Safety Program for education and treatment projects aimed at reducing substance abuse in rural communities. Where necessary to preserve rural access to health services, the refinancing of rural hospital debt is now eligible for rural development loan/loan guarantee programs if assistance would meaningfully improve the financial situation of the hospital, according to the agriculture department.
Another emphasis of the 2018 Farm Act is the connecting of rural Americans to high-speed broadband internet by continuing to provide grants, loans and loan guarantees to finance rural broadband projects in communities with less than 10,000 population and a high rate of poverty, the summary states. The 2018 Farm Act authorizes appropriations of $350 million per fiscal year for 2019 to 2023, a substantial increase from $25 million per fiscal year authorized under the 2014 Farm Act.
The law also provides water, waste disposal and wastewater facility grants to entities that assist eligible rural water systems with long term sustainability planning. The 2018 Farm Act increases the maximum amount of financing an eligible entity can receive (from a revolving fund) from $100,000 to $200,000 but decreases funding for these programs from $30 million to $15 million per fiscal year.
A Rural Innovation Stronger Economy Grant Program establishes a competitive grant program for rural jobs accelerator partnerships to improve the ability of distressed rural communities to create high-wage jobs, accelerate the formation of new businesses, and identify/maximize local assets. Available grants range from $500,000 to $2 million, with $10 million authorized to be appropriated for the program each fiscal year.