Compromised Farm Bill Poised to Pass Senate — Hard Fought Wins, Tough Losses
January 30, 2014
Big city investors? Rest easy; you can still get your pretend-to-be-a-farmer subsidy.
Single mothers and others struggling to recover from the deepest, hardest recession in my lifetime? Suck it up and prepare to stretch even less money farther to feed you and your family. Farmers wanting to improve your farming practices to conserve soil, keep nutrients on the land and out of our water? Prepare for less federal conservation program funding and staff to help you do it.
For two and a half years, the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute and its partners across Wisconsin and the nation have pressed Congress to pass a balanced, responsible farm bill. This week, the House-Senate conference committee released its compromise bill, which the House passed on Wednesday, January 28.
The bill accomplishes some important things. It restores the requirement that farmers who get farm subsidies or government-subsidized crop insurance must conserve soil and not pollute water. Also, the many important programs that expired when Congress let the last Farm Bill expire in September 2012, got their funding reauthorized; these include programs helping beginning farmers, supporting farmers markets and other direct markets, funding research for organic farming, assisting socially disadvantaged farmers, increasing farmers’ profitability, and more. We are proud and grateful that the bill includes these hard-won achievements.
However, it also cuts food stamps (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) payments by $9 billion a year and imposes onerous requirements on those needing its assistance. Further, in a sleight-of-hand worthy only of this Congress, it reneged on commitments each house already made to reform farm commodity program payments so only people actually helping to operate the farm are eligible or so farmers couldn’t simply enroll their spouse, cousin, uncle, and children as eligible recipients to multiply their payments. These payment loopholes make the rich get richer, large farmers larger, and they squeeze mid-sized farmers and small farmers out of agriculture and make it harder for farmers to get started. In other words, they don’t accomplish the subsidy’s goal of providing a safety net for actual working farmers; instead, they actually thwart countless farmers by capitalizing farm consolidation at taxpayers’ expense.
Last time Congress passed a Farm Bill, in 2008, President Bush vetoed it precisely because it didn’t contain meaningful reforms to commodity payments, and Congress overrode his veto. We don’t expect that scenario this time, but I certainly can imagine – and hope for – another. In this week’s State of the Union Message, President Obama said that in the absence of congressional leadership on dismantling the nation’s economic divide, he plans to step into the void. “America does not stand still, and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”
One obvious place to expand opportunities for young farmers and family farmers is by keeping a lid on unfair subsidies to outside investors gaming the system. The President already has authority to write regulations to close loopholes and should use it. He also can direct that Farm Bill-mandated experiments with imposing SNAP work requirements be conducted in states with a track record of actually wanting to help poor people rather than punishing them. If the president pursues these and similar executive actions to mitigate the worst of the Farm Bill’s extremism and directs USDA to draft rules to implement its many excellent programs quickly, this may yet turn into a Farm Bill that shifts the agricultural landscape for the better.
Margaret Krome is the Policy Program Director at the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute