Understanding the Farm Bill: Entrenched Interests, Incremental Change

Last week, I attended a Farm Bill listening session held by the Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC) in Minneapolis. The organization was looking for input about what should be its 2012 Farm Bill policy priorities, but what it got instead was smorgasbord of ideas that would be difficult -- if not impossible -- to put into the Farm Bill as it is now. Because the Farm Bill directly affects the lives and livelihoods of all Americans (and many around the world), there are many stakeholders. But because it is both so broad and so complex, it’s hard to please everyone. It's even harder to get entrenched interests to agree to anything but incremental change.

The 50-or-so participants in last week’s session ranged from folks who work with CFSC member organizations to farmers to community members who had just seen Food, Inc., and about half us hadn’t worked with the Farm Bill before. The discussion we had was indicative of the broadening and passionate interest in food issues in our community.

In the 2008 Farm Bill, CFSC counted among its policy successes $33 million in funding for the Farmers’ Market Nutrition program, $50 million for community food projects, and provisions for local school food purchases. Kathy Mulvey, Policy Director at CFSC’s Washington, D.C. office, has been leading Farm Bill listening sessions around the country since last fall.

Of course, the CFSC is just one of the many groups with an interest in the Farm Bill. The Farm Bill has sometimes been called a “Christmas tree bill” because each constituency has an ornament they’d like to see decorating the tree -- for environmental groups, this may be a change in EQIP standards, while for nutrition groups, this may be an increase in SNAP benefits.

At the session I attended, people had a hard time picking just one or two ornaments for the tree; they wanted to chop the tree down and plant a new one. I understand he importance of choosing priorities, but when faced with the question, I couldn’t make a decision. I thought about the Iowa farmer I’d met who was conducting on-farm research into crop rotations that would reduce the level of nitrates in his town’s drinking water -- how could I vote against more funding for similar projects? I thought about my neighbors using SNAP benefits to buy broccoli at the Midtown Farmers Market -- how could I vote against making this possible at all farmers markets?

There was consensus around the idea that the Farm Bill debate needs to be framed differently -- it’s not just a Farm Bill, it’s a Food Bill, and we can use it to make a healthier food system that connects the public heath with nutrition, conservation, and sustainable agriculture. In this age of budget crunches, perhaps the most significant changes we can hope for are policy changes that don’t require allocation of new funds. In the end, three policy priorities made it to the top of the list: building local food infrastructure, aiding beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers, and reframing the Farm Bill debate.

Of course, not all voices with an interest in the Farm Bill were heard at this listening session. There were no large-scale family farmers, cotton, or peanut growers present, all of whom may have different policy priorities. There were no agribusiness representatives, who will likely be fighting as hard for the status quo in the 2012 Farm Bill as the CFSC is fighting for a new vision. A new group of people is paying attention to the Farm Bill; the challenge is to harness excitement about the Farm Bill in productive ways.

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. Ann is Simple, Good, and Tasty's resident Farm Bill expert. Her most recent post for us was Understanding the Farm Bill: Who is the Average Family Farmer?