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Let's get the Farm Bill right — and quickly

Margaret Reeves's picture
Margaret Reeves
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I just called my legislators on Capitol Hill to tell them how important it is to get a fair Food and Farm Bill passed, and soon. I told them we need policies that support farmers who are working to protect vital resources — soil, water, pollinators — and that provide access for everyone to good quality food.

It's pretty clear that Congress needs some pressure on this one. They were on the hook to pass a new Farm Bill in 2012 — and they didn’t. Instead, we’ve seen two failed attempts, followed by a terrible last-minute extension of the 2008 Farm Bill that left many of the best programs for small, family farmers on the cutting room floor. We're working with partners across the country to press legislators to get it right this time, and you can help.

Here's the latest in this convoluted, highly politicized round of Farm Bill debates. Two months ago, the House tried to strip the supplemental nutrition assistance programs (aka SNAP) from the Farm Bill, proposing to cut $40 billion dollars from this safety net program for the poor. The draconian effort was blocked — but incredibly, it's now on the table again.

Meanwhile, small family farmers were left in the lurch as many of the best programs supporting conservation and rural development were shelved in the temporary extension bill. And now once again, time is running out.

Getting to a fair Farm Bill

In the next phase of debate — this month and next — Congress must return to the tradition of compromise and agree (in conference between the Senate and House) to fund a full Food and Farm Bill that addresses the needs of both farmers and those dependent on nutrition assistance. More than 300 organizations around the country have joined forces to urge Congress to do just that.

We need to end up with a 5-year bill that provides urgently needed, fiscally responsible policy reforms.

No more run-away subsidies to the largest, wealthiest and often absentee producers of the so-called commodity crops (corn, soy bean, cotton and wheat). Our national farm policy should not be supporting industrial agriculture while all but ignoring hard-working farm and ranch families who grow a variety of food crops including grains, fruits, nuts, vegetables as well as animal products.

We can do better.

Devil in the details

We're working with our DC-based friends at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition to track the various angles of the debate. Here are a few highlights for those interested in diving more deeply into policy details.

Crop Insurance. Both the House and Senate versions of the Farm Bill shift away from the historical "direct payments" for commodity crops, and toward greater emphasis on crop insurance. We expect large corporate farms and agribusiness will oppose these changes, that include an annual cap on commodity payments of $50,000, and make only actively producing farms eligible to receive them.

Depending on the outcome of conference negotiations, the insurance programs may cost taxpayers about $9.5-$10 billion/year while direct payments will go down, accounting for somewhere around $5 billion annually.

Key elements that will be up for debate are measures to improve crop insurance options and access for organic farmers — and re-linking insurance eligibility to on-farm conservation. The latter is something I’ve long been pushing as both common sense risk-reduction efforts and wise investment in the future.

Conservation and Rural Development. In addition to real crop insurance reform, we need renewed support both for those conservation programs that survived the end-of-2012 extension fiasco and reinstatement of those programs that were eliminated.

These stranded programs create jobs, invest in our next generation of farmers, and help farmers and communities build a more sustainable future. In fact, the conservation programs actually help prevent crop loss and the need for insurance as well as providing quantifiable benefits. A very smart investment.

Among the programs that survived the ax in the current extension are the popular Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). In recent proposals, however, these programs face significant cuts: $4.8 million in the House version, $3.5 in the Senate.

Current proposals also include substantial cuts to the conservation and rural development programs that were stranded in the December 2012 extension. Here's a list of (and links to) just a few of these programs, to give a flavor of what's at stake:

Small slice of the pie

Funding for all of the conservation and rural development programs would account for roughly $240 million/year (an estimated $2.4 billion over 10 years) — a small percentage of the $973 billion estimated in June 2013 by the Congressional Budget Office for total cost of Farm Bill programs under current law.

Nutrition programs account for 79% of the baseline. The rest is divided among the various agriculture programs that include 8.6% for insurance, 6.0% for direct commodity payments, 6.3% for conservation, and — if they hadn’t been eliminated — much smaller amounts for the other programs listed above.

We know these programs have a particularly big bang for the buck. They must not be refunded — and if possible, should be strengthened. We also know that Congress needs to be pressed to finish the job on Farm Bill negotiations, and to get it right this time.

Take Action» Please take a minute to have your say — it's easy. And it's super important, as good policy decisions now can help move us toward a food and farming future that is vibrant, healthy and fair.  

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