A Farm Bill Primer: Getting Ready for 2012

As a child of the Midwest, I’ve been surrounded by farms and farmers my whole life. Most of my immigrant forebears were farmers, and there’s a good chance that yours were, too. Although I’ve chosen a city lot instead of my grandfather’s alfalfa fields (at least for now), I’m quite interested in what will happen in the 2012 Farm Bill. The Farm Bill affects not just farmers, but everyone who eats -- and that’s all of us. The bill, with its grand scope and billions of dollars, will help define what we eat (and, thus, who we are) in thousands of subtle ways.

So what exactly is the Farm Bill? I won’t ask you to read the whole 700-plus-page thing, but I’m hopeful that you’ll join us in this blog space (and on Facebook), and together we’ll figure out what the Farm Bill is all about and how it can better serve us as lovers of all things simple, good, and tasty

Every five-or-so years, Congress reconsiders the Farm Bill.  Since the last Farm Bill was passed in 2008, plans are underway to introduce new legislation in 2012. The Farm Bill does two things: it enacts mandatory programs, which are definitely funded -- even if they go over budget, and authorizes discretionary programs, which later require money to be appropriated for them by Congress.

The very first Farm Bill, enacted under FDR in 1933, was designed to aid struggling farmers during the Great Depression. It established price support for six basic commodity crops by paying farmers not to produce them, limiting supply and thus driving up prices . Since then, the Farm Bill has grown to encompass not only areas often associated with agriculture, such as the commodity programs, conservation programs, and trade, but also topics like nutrition, rural development, and the forest service.

The mandatory spending laid out in the 2008 Farm Bill was projected to be $284 billion, an unfathomably large sum that’s actually less than one percent of the federal budget. Four areas, nutrition, commodity support, conservation, and crop insurance, make up the bulk of the Farm Bill’s total spending. In fact, nutrition programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps), make up 67% of Farm Bill spending, while commodities account for 15%.

So who’s in charge of writing this behemoth (and where can we direct our suggestions)? The House and Senate agriculture committees each write their own versions of the bill, and then hash out the differences. Therefore, the makeup of each committee is critical to how the Farm Bill looks. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) is the chair of the Senate committee, while Collin Peterson (D-MN) heads up the House committee. The committee members are largely from Midwestern and Southern agricultural states, though other states are represented. 

Because it’s an omnibus (that’s Congress-speak for “broad”) bill, the Farm Bill can sometimes facilitate the alliance of seemingly conflicting interests. However, it can also inspire fervent competition for limited funds (how do you choose between soil conservation and child nutrition?). For example, the connection between nutrition programs and agricultural policy represents a built-in compromise between legislators from more urban and more rural states. In the ultimate paradox, the USDA recommends that we all eat more fruits and vegetables, while the Farm Bill promotes the production of more grain.

Fortunately, the choice doesn't have to be “nutrition vs. agriculture.” Over the next few months, we’ll explore ways that rethinking Farm Bill could help solve these problems. Meetings about the 2012 Farm Bill are already underway in Congress, so the time to advocate a fair Farm Bill for producers and consumers is now! 

Resources used in the creation of this post include:

  • A Fair Farm Bill for America, edited by Ben Lilliston for IATP in 2007
  • Farm Bills and Farmers, by Edward Lotterman for Banking and Policy Issues Magazine, December 1996
  • What is the “Farm Bill”?, written by Renée Johnson for the Congressional Research Service in 2010.
  • Farm Bill and USDA lecture by Tim Griffin at Tufts University, October 7, 2010.

Finally, if you haven't yet "Liked" our Facebook page, Understanding the Farm Bill: A Citizen's Guide to a Better Food System (jointly created with folks from IATP), please visit us there, let us know what you think, "Like" us, and tell your friends.

Ann Butkowski is happy to be back in her native Minnesota after spending the last two years in Boston. She’s learning to bike the streets of Minneapolis and grow tomatoes in her backyard. Ann has a master’s degree in nutrition science, but doesn’t let that stop her from eating ice cream right out of the carton.