The Farm Bill and Why It Matters

Warshal Farm Bill Article
PHOTO: Alexander Warshal

The Farm Bill reauthorizes spending for various programs and services that involve the broad agricultural community. It originated as a bill to alleviate the economic hardships farmers faced during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, and now has grown in to a more expansive bill that covers a variety of agricultural and rural issues.

These issues are organized into “Titles” (below is the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s breakdown of these Titles).

“Title 1: Commodities.  The Commodities Title covers price and income supports for the farmers who raise widely-produced and traded crops, like corn, soybeans, wheat, and rice – as well as dairy and sugar.

Title 2: Conservation.  The Conservation Title covers programs that help farmers implement natural resource conservation efforts on working lands like pasture and cropland, land retirement programs, and easement programs.  The title also includes resource conservation requirements for participation in commodity and crop insurance programs and helps institutions and community organizations provide farmers with conservation technical assistance.

Title 3: Trade.  The Trade Title covers food exports and international food aid programs.

Title 4: Nutrition.  The Nutrition Title covers the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP] – also known as food stamps – as well as a variety of smaller nutrition programs to help low-income Americans afford food for their families.

Title 5: Credit.  The Credit Title covers federal loan programs designed to help farmers access the financial credit (via direct loans as well as loan guarantees and other tools) they need to grow and sustain their farming operations.

Title 6: Rural Development.  The Rural Development Title covers programs that help foster rural economic growth through rural business and community development (including farm businesses), housing, and infrastructure improvement.

Title 7: Research, Extension, and Related Matters.  The Research Title covers farming and food research, education, and extension programs designed to support innovation, from state university-affiliated research to vital training for the next generation of farmers and ranchers.

Title 8: Forestry.  The Forestry Title covers forest-specific conservation, creating incentives and programs that help farmers and rural communities to be stewards of forest resources.

Title 9:  Energy.  The Energy Title covers programs that encourage growing and processing crops for biofuel; help farmers, ranchers and business owners install renewable energy systems; and support research related to energy.

Title 10: Specialty Crops & Horticulture.  The term “specialty crops” refers to fruits, vegetables, nuts, and nursery crops, including organic produce.  This title covers farmers market and local food programs, funding for research and infrastructure specific to those “specialty crops”, and organic research and certification programs.

Title 11: Crop Insurance.  The Crop Insurance Title provides premium subsidies to farmers and subsidies to the private crop insurance companies who provide federal crop insurance to farmers, as well as providing USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) with the authority to research, develop, and modify a variety of crop- and revenue-based insurance policies.

Title 12: Miscellaneous.  The Miscellaneous Title brings together advocacy and outreach programs for beginning, socially disadvantaged, and veteran farmers and ranchers; agricultural labor safety and workforce development; and livestock health.”

The bill needs renewal roughly every five years depending on funds appropriated. The funding for the 2014 Farm Bill is set to expire on September 30th, 2018, making this bill a priority. Without funding, many programs important to both consumers and farmers will cease to operate.

Both the House and Senate have passed their respective versions of the Farm Bill, and the bill is currently in Conference Committee to reconcile its differences. The 2018 Conference Committee is made up of 56 members, of which 47 are Representatives (29 Republicans and 18 Democrats) and 9 are Senators (5 Republicans and 4 Democrats).

The biggest debate of the Conference revolves around the fight over work requirements for SNAP benefits in Title 4. The controversial SNAP changes are no small arguing point. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “SNAP is the country’s most effective anti-hunger program, helping 1 in 8 Americans afford a basic diet, with most SNAP participants being children, seniors, or people with disabilities.” Additionally, Politico states, “the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as food stamps…helps more than 40 million Americans buy groceries, accounts for more than three-quarters of the farm bill’s price tag.”

While the expiring bill already has work requirements to receive SNAP benefits, the House Bill would increase these requirements and, “would require all adults aged 18 to 59 to work at least 20 hours a week or be enrolled in a training program in order to receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.”

Advocates for the work requirements say that by requiring people to work to draw on government assistance, it bolsters the economy, saves money in social spending, and cuts down on waste. However, opponents say that the work requirements are counter-intuitive as those drawing on SNAP benefits are income limited and, in many cases, don’t have a job and use SNAP as a last resort to feed them and their families. Opponents also claim that “The work requirements are projected to cut SNAP enrollment by up to 1 million people and would decrease spending on SNAP by $20 billion over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.”

Although the largest debate rages around SNAP, the two bills have some other important, notable differences. The House bill seeks to slim the existing legislation through its revisions to the SNAP program and its requirements. It also seeks to cut the overall scope of the bill by reducing agricultural land conservation programs, overturning some pesticide regulations, and rolling back various state and local food regulations.

The Senate bill seeks to maintain the status quo or expand certain programs and their funding. Notably, the Senate bill creates the Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP). The LAMP consolidates various grant and funding programs into a single program, designates Cooperative Extension Services as the primary source for outreach, and adds funding for beginning farmers. The Senate bill also includes provisions to close subsidy loopholes that previously allowed for individuals related to those “actively engaged in farming”, but not actively farming, to collect subsidies. This Farm Bill renewal comes at a very pivotal time in American agriculture.

Farmer incomes are plummeting and farm subsidies are going mainly toward large farms, which are financially stable on their own, while small and medium-sized farms struggle to financially compete with agricultural giants of today. Agricultural exports are floundering as a result of President Trump’s trade war, and although the President has committed $12B in aid, this will not cover all the financial losses the trade war has caused and will cause going forward.

Most importantly, many farmers are aging out and we need to usher in a new era of younger, beginning farmers. According to the National Farmer’s Union (NFU), “The average American farmer is 58.3 years old, and upwards of 60 percent of the nation’s 3.2 million farmers are within 10 years of retirement age, according to the 2012 Ag Census. By some estimates, two-thirds of agricultural land will change hands in the next 25 years, meaning agriculture will see a huge transition as retiring farmers and ranchers turn over the reins to new and beginning farmers”.

When the Farm Bill comes out of Conference Committee for a vote by both the House and Senate, we need a bill that works for both farmers and consumers.

Specifically, we need a stronger farm safety net that fights farm consolidation and enforces antitrust laws, stronger crop insurance programs that help out small and mid-size farms in this time of uncertainty, and updated programs to combat declining farm net income.

We need a stronger SNAP program that addresses rural poverty and food issues. We do not need a SNAP program with more work requirements. Moderate work requirements make sense to push people to pull themselves out of poverty and to avoid fraud; however, the additional work requirements proposed by the House bill don’t make sense as stripping away access to cheaper, healthier food will only financially hurt those attempting to break out of poverty. Chipping away at a safety net that helps rural communities stay healthy and fed makes no sense if you claim to advocate for rural citizens and their needs.

We need to support LAMP, incentivize participation in local farmers market programs, and fund beginning farmer programs. We need rural development funding to make sure everyone has access to jobs programs, fair housing, and broadband internet. These advancements ensure that rural areas traditionally neglected by American society are taken care of.

As this bill crawls through the legislation process, Congress must understand what is at stake. Neither version corrects every issue with the expiring Farm Bill; but then again, no piece of legislation is perfect. When comparing the House and Senate Farm Bills, Congress should reconcile and pass the revised Senate bill as it most comprehensively addresses the shortcomings facing rural and agricultural communities today.

About Alexander Warshal 3 Articles
Alexander Warshal attends Michigan State University and is an advocate for bipartisanship. Alexander is an Independent and has been involved in both Democratic and Republican political organizations. Follow him on Twitter @ajwarshal

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