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Unpacking Policy: What is the Farm Bill?

Patricia Griffin

May 30, 2018

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Here at the James Beard Foundation, we believe a better food system means ensuring equity, sustainability, and access for those growing and consuming food in America. But achieving real change to our laws and regulations means grappling with the intricate layers of policy on the local, state, and federal level. When it comes to food policy, Schoolhouse Rock is only the beginning—so we’ve called on experts to detail the ins and outs of key policies we’re tracking in Congress. In our first entry, Nueva Vista Group’s Patricia Griffin digs into the farm bill: its origins, future, and how potential changes could affect American citizens, farmers, and eaters alike.

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What is the farm bill?

The farm bill, rewritten by Congress every five years or so, governs farm and food policy and most other issues handled by the United States Agriculture Department. It authorizes programs ranging from crop insurance and healthy food access to conservation, forestry, energy, and organic farming programs.

What does the farm bill mean to me?

The bill affects absolutely everyone—whether you live in urban, rural, or suburban areas. It has huge impacts on our local, regional, national, and international economies. It creates jobs, builds infrastructure, affects our public health and funds one of the most important safety net programs—the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The 2014 Farm Bill was projected to cost about $489 billion over the five years of the bill’s life, according to the USDA Economic Research Service using data from the Congressional Budget Office.

Why is it so controversial?

The 2018 farm bill debate is off to a contentious start. The farm bill has a history of providing important funding for farmers, land, research, and vital nutrition and food access programs. This year, House leadership has chosen to target a number of programs supported by both rural and urban members, either through complete elimination or drastic cuts. This would result not only in a decrease in resources to our most vulnerable communities across the country, but would also put at risk the important coalition of members of Congress from urban and rural communities that have played a huge role in the passage of this massive federal policy for almost 50 years.

How did this all begin?

The first farm bill was signed into law in 1933 as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, as a response to the economic and environmental crises of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Initially, its goals were to keep food prices fair for farmers and consumers in order to combat on- and off-farm hunger and poverty, and to protect and sustain the country’s vital natural resources. Farm bills have evolved since that first bill, but they continue to serve as a response to shifts in agricultural and the larger economic dynamics of the United States.

Where are we now?

Congress is in the middle of debating the farm bill, which must be approved by September 30, 2018, or farmers and families will be at risk of losing vital protections. There are a number of variables driving the farm bill reauthorization process as it moves through Congress:

  • Conservative members of Congress are determined to cut and modify the SNAP program under the guise of “welfare reform.”
  • Farmers are struggling. We are entering the fifth consecutive year that farm income is down for major commodities.
  • Rural America is suffering on multiple fronts: chronic job loss, a public health crisis, and a social and information disconnect from more populated areas.

On April 18, the House Agriculture Committee kicked off the process by passing their version of the farm bill out of committee. A few things are important to note about the process and this version of the bill:

  • This 641-page farm bill was written by House Agriculture Committee Republicans behind closed doors, which marks the first time in almost 50 years that the farm bill process was not worked on in a bi-partisan manner at the committee level.
  • Historically, roughly 80 percent of the funding for the farm bill has gone to SNAP. The House farm bill seeks to “fix” SNAP by implementing sweeping changes to a program that is not broken. One of the proposals would require all able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 59 to work or be enrolled in a job training program for at least 20 hours a week beginning in 2021, increasing to 25 hours per week in 2026.  
  • Studies show that SNAP recipients who can work, do in fact work. Additional work requirements will do nothing but take away food assistance to upwards of 2 million food insecure individuals.
  • These new requirements would hit rural areas the hardest, where poverty is higher, there are greater impediments to finding jobs, and where there is a greater reliance on SNAP than in urban areas. 
  • The bill eradicates the nation’s largest working land conservation program, the Conservation Stewardship Program. CSP helps keep our water and air clean, our wildlife thriving, and our farms sustainable in the long term.
  • It also eliminates all funding for innovative programs like the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program (FMLFPP) and Organic Certification Cost Share (NOCCSP). By doing so, it makes it difficult for farmers and business owners to take advantage of the rapidly growing markets for locally and regionally produced food and organic products. 

On May 18, the House of Representatives brought their version of the farm bill to a floor vote. It failed 198 to 213—between Democrats opposing egregious modifications to the SNAP program, and conservative Republicans wanting to use the farm bill to prompt a vote on a tougher immigration bill, there were enough nays to sink the bill.

While many advocates were hopeful that the House Agriculture Committee would just go back to the drawing board, it seems that instead, they will be bringing back the same bill for another vote in mid-June. The Senate Agriculture Committee has also indicated that it intends to release its version of the farm bill at some point in June.

What can I do?

The fate of the American farm bill is important to us all. This bill, which includes close to a trillion dollars for food, farmers, and the planet, must pass by September 2018. Americans who care about food and farm policy should learn more and make their voices heard. Here is a list of resources for you to follow:

Center for American Progress
Food Policy Action
National Coalition for Sustainable Agriculture
National Farmers Union

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Patricia Griffin is a partner at the Nueva Vista Group. A nationally recognized go-to expert on progressive issue campaigns, Patricia focuses on coalition-building, traditional and non-traditional government relations, and advocacy around the federal budget and appropriations process. Learn more at nvglic.com.