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Entries in Agriculture (1)

Monday
Mar052012

Part I: A Breakdown of the Food and Farm Bill

The Food and Farm Bill. I had heard it mentioned loosely in conversation, read about it briefly in the newspaper and zoned out when NPR discussed components of it on my morning drive. It wasn't until I went to the Just Food conference and sat through a workshop on the Food and Farm Bill, that I realized this piece of legislation mattered. It mattered to me, as a consumer, a purchaser of food, and a citizen of the United States. We hear the word "farm" and think of farmers, tractors, corn fields, the mid-west. We don't think about the farms that are local to almost all of us, regardless of where you live. We don't think about the fact that farms produce the food which inevitably ends up on our tables, in our bodies. The Food and Farm bill encompasses all of this and so much more. Which is exactly why it should matter to you.

So what is the Farm Bill? The federal Farm Bill is a piece of legislation that governs food and farm policy in the United States. This includes U.S. agriculture, nutrition programs (Food Stamps and Emergency Food Assistance), economic development programs, organic food, agricultural research and more. The bill is split into "Titles" that cover specific program areas and is up for re-authorization every five years. That means that this year, in 2012, it is up for re-authorization, though it is possible the re-authorization may not occur until 2013 due to the election.

The Farm Bill dates back to the 1930's when President FDR initiated a variety of New Deal programs to balance the market fluctuations and provide a safety net for previous low farm prices. The New Deal established grain reserves and a program where farmers cold receive a fair price for their goods, such as corn and wheat. The Farm Bill continued over the next 70 years, during which time a shift in policy occurred. In the 1970's, farmers were encouraged to plant "fencerow-to-fencerow" in order to export their goods to the Soviet Union. At the same time, and following a grain shortage in Russia, prices farmers could receive for U.S. farm products went up. Farmers throughout the United States transitioned from diversified agriculture to monocropping one or two commodity crops which could then be exported for high prices in bulk. By the early 1980's, the agricultural boom of the 70s was reversed and segued into a farm crisis. Crop prices fell, farm income fell, and farmland value fell. US farmers continued to push their crops on the foreign market, selling for far lower prices than the local cost of production. The result: US farmers continued to produce more in order to make up for their already low prices, which inevitably drove prices even lower. In 1996, we saw the "Freedom to Farm" bill change the face of the Farm bill. The '96 farm bill eliminated the requirement that farmers keep some land idle (a requirement of the New Deal farm bill). This new found land allowed farmers to plant as much as they could, but instead of great success, farmers became vulnerable to weather and market fluctuations. To compensate, farmers planted more. Grain prices collapsed, as did the price for corn and soybeans. The common theme? Overproduction; an issue that was not addressed in the 2002 or 2008 Farm bill. Which brings us to the 2008 Farm Bill.

In 2008, the mandatory spending laid out was projected to be $284 billion. Nutrition, commodity support, conservation, and crop insurance made up the bulk of the Farm Bill's total spending. Approximately 2/3 of the spending, $188 billion for the 2008 bill, went to the nutrition title. This title establishes government programs that provide assistance, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) and The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). The commodity title, Title I, deals with the crops that the government subsidizes, specifically corn, wheat, soybeans, sorghum, barley, oats, rice, cotton and other major grains. While there are 13 additional titles in the 2008 Farm Bill, none receive as much money or are as controversial as Title I and Title IV.

These two titles deserve separate and unique attention. and will get just that in later posts. For now, it is critical to understand that the Food and Farm Bill touches all of us. It does not just regulate farmers and crops. It is seen in the food that gets put on our tables (and the food that does not). It exists in the assistance that millions of Americans receive each day. It is the food that shows up on our children's lunch trays in school.  As food journalist Michael Pollan said, "It isn't really a bill just for farmers. It really should be called the food bill because it is the rules for the food system we all eat by."

With the impending re-authorization of the Farm Bill, ignorance on this piece of legislation is not acceptable. Take a moment to read about where your Congress person stands on the 2012/2013 Farm Bill and write to them if you don't agree. Stay tuned for two additional posts on the Nutrition and Commodity Titles of the Farm Bill.

For additional information:

The Food and Water Watch provides a variety of surface level and in depth resources on the Farm Bill.

Search "Farm Bill" on www.house.gov or www.senate.gov