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The Farm Bill: A Primer

Calling the Farm Bill a “farm” bill might be a bit of a misnomer. Here’s why:

The Farm Bill is an omnibus bill

Omnibus means “for everything” in Latin—and that designation is not a misnomer. The bill impacts issues ranging from commodity crops, agricultural research, rural development, farm credit, nutrition assistance, and food safety to environmental conservation, energy and international trade.

Mostly though, the bill drives USDA policy in an attempt to answer questions that largely determine what kinds of food American consumers eat:  Which crops are eligible for subsidies? Which plant and animal varieties merit federal funding for research and development? How can we ensure farmers receive stable pricing for their harvest, even if supply outpaces demand? What happens when unfavorable weather leads to a poor harvest?

Since USDA policy determines what farmers are most likely to grow, feeding 300 million Americans (not to mention exports), it’s not surprising that the Farm Bill is…

Massive

Recent incarnations approach one trillion dollars in spending. Granted, that’s one trillion allocated over 10 years. But still, a trillion dollars is a thousand billion dollars. For context, Farm Bill spending typically falls somewhere above education, but below defense and Social Security spending. Big budget numbers make the Farm Bill an especially tempting target for cuts.

Roughly three-quarters of that trillion dollars supports the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program (SNAP). Nutrition programs were originally introduced to the Farm Bill not only to benefit food-insecure Americans (as one might suspect), but also to provide farmers with an outlet for excess supply. Excess supply is a serious problem for farmers, since it causes the prices they can get for their crops to drop.  Left unchecked, falling prices would create a significant disincentive for farmers to grow food. Nutrition programs were intended to be a win-win, but whether or not they are is…

Highly controversial

The Farm Bill was intentionally designed to unite the interests of congressional constituents in rural areas (farmers) with the interests of constituents in urban areas (eaters). Theoretically, this makes Congress’s job easier. However, given that the Farm Bill impacts so many aspects of the political landscape and amounts to a significant portion of the federal budget, the bill often falls prey to contentious debate. Partisan politics sometimes delay passage of the bill beyond its… 

Five year expiration date

Typically, Farm Bills carry an expiration date of five years from the time they’re enacted, at which point Congress must debate, amend and reauthorize the bill. The five year timespan is meant to provide farmers with a measure of stability and predictability. After all, the Farm Bill guides farmers’ long range planning, not least of which is deciding what to plant for the following season’s harvest. Whenever partisan debates delay passage of the Farm Bill, farmers justifiably get a little antsy. But if you’re envisioning mostly small family farmers wringing their hands with worry, think again because the Farm Bill overwhelmingly…

Favors large-scale conventional agribusiness

The Farm Bill predominantly supports commodity crop growers—agribusinesses who grow enormous amounts of crops like the corn and soy that end up in animal feed and processed foods. Commodity crops are eligible for federal subsidies, so conventional agribusiness has a considerable stake in lobbying for a continuation of the current Farm Bill policies. That said, progressive programs that address the needs of organic farmers have gained ground in recent years due to the work of advocacy groups such as the National Organic Coalition.

So, there you have it. The Farm Bill is an omnibus bill that has grown to massive proportions. It incites controversy that sometimes makes the bill too politically-charged to pass in a timely fashion. And, it attracts the lobbying interests of agribusiness and organic advocates alike. But when it comes down to it, the Farm Bill is mostly about food. Whether or not our food is healthy, affordable, nutritious and abundant—it’s all written into the Food, er, Farm Bill. And for that reason alone, it’s worth paying attention to.