The Farm Bill

This picture has nothing to do with the farm bill, but I thought it would make a good thumbnail!

This picture has nothing to do with the farm bill, but I thought it would make a good thumbnail!

The Farm Bill passed the Senate during the previous work period, and it makes an interesting study in policy.  It also is not entirely about farmers, which came as a surprise to me.  The bill really focuses on authorization for the US Department of Agriculture, so it spans all USDA programs.

Farm bills are supposed to be passed every five years.  Last summer, the Senate passed a farm bill, but the House didn’t take up their version before the session ended at the end of the year.  With a new Congress in place, all pending legislation from the previous session died, and all bills had to be re-introduced and re-passed through committee and through each chamber.  That does make some sense since the new Senate had a dozen new senators.  Even in the Committee on Agriculture, the Ranking Member changed, and that required some changes in the farm bill.

A large bill is organized into Titles, each of which is on a different topic.  Each Title is a bit like a chapter of a book, so the “Title IX” that is used to ensure that girls and boys have equal opportunities to play sports is actually part of a larger public law called, “Education Amendments of 1972.”  Thus many other bills also have a Title IX, but those aren’t quite as famous.  It seems a little odd that we refer to a law by a term that means, “Chapter 9,” but I’ve never claimed that we are logical all the time.

I thought it would be interesting to walk through the various Titles of the Senate farm bill, to see all the components in a single piece of legislation.  The House version would cover the same general topics, but the details might be different.  I simply know the Senate version much more thoroughly.

Title I: Commodity Programs.   As it has been explained to me, there are two different types of crops.  Specialty crops include tomatoes, strawberries, and broccoli, and these commodities get little support in terms of either federal subsidies or crop insurance.  Program crops, which include corn, barley, and wheat, have enjoyed a federal subsidy called, “Direct Payments,” which pays a farmer a certain amount based on the acreage grown of the program crop.  There is no threshold of need in these payments, and often the bulk of these payments go to extremely large farms, so there have been many complaints about these programs.  In the current Senate farm bill, these payments are now tied to triggers of price or yield, so payments only happen either when prices dip or when a farmer’s yield goes down.  The reduction in these programs is balanced out by strengthening crop insurance in Title XI.

Title II: Conservation Programs.  Since this Title focuses on environmental programs, it’s one that I know more about.  The programs in this Title provide support and/or incentives for farmers to preserve grassland/rangeland/forest/wetlands, to preserve wildlife habitat, or to incorporate conservation measures on land that is in production.

Title III: Trade.  The focus of this title is statues concerning U.S. international food aid as well as the development of agricultural export markets.

Title IV: Nutrition.  This has been one of the thorniest Titles of the whole bill since it deals with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.  There was some back-and-forth in the Senate about how much funding should be provided to support this program.   Ultimately, the program was cut by $4.1 billion over 10 years in the Senate, but the House bill involved a cut of $20.5 billion over 10 years.  That level of spending reduction was a “poison pill” for the House Democrats, who pretty unilaterally voted against the bill as a result.  Ironically, conservative Republicans voted against the overall bill because they felt the cut was not enough.

Title V: Credit Title.  The USDA is the lender of last resort for applicants for agricultural credit and rural development programs, and this Title re-authorizes the program and provides some tweaks.

Title VI: Rural Development.  This section defines “rural,” and then authorizes programs such as rural water and wastewater assistance programs, as well as the rural electrification act, which includes the Rural Broadband Act.  In each of these cases, the idea is to provide support so that rural residents have basic utilities and safe, clean water.

Title VII: Research, Extension, and Related Matters. USDA is authorized to conduct agricultural research relating to topics such as specialty crops and organic agriculture.  In this section, there is also a Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program.

Title VIII: Forestry.  It may seem odd to have forestry in the Farm Bill, but because the US Forest Service is under the USDA, this bill is an appropriate place to address some forestry issues.  The Senate bill contains two Bennet bills that were introduced individually, but were conveniently rolled into this larger bill.  Because floor time is so limited, it’s difficult for small bills to get passed. The key is hang your smaller bill off  a “vehicle,” which is a related larger bill with a good chance of passage.  That way when the large bill passes, your smaller bill goes along with it.  The two Bennet provisions in this Title include a limited ability to accelerate treatment of forests that have extensive insect damage, and an expansion of the “Good Neighbor” program which allows private, state, and federal foresters jointly to hire a single contractor to do work such as fuel reduction on adjacent lands shared by more than one of these groups.

Title IX: Energy. The 2002 farm bill was the first to have an energy title.  Conceptually, the idea was to incentivize research and development for renewable energy, but practically, the USDA focuses their programs on biofuel production and use.  Corn-based ethanol and cellulosic ethanol incentives fall under this title.

Title X: Horticulture.  This section focuses on specialty crops and certified organic programs.  I did look up some definitions; Agriculture focuses on growing food crops and raising animals for farming.  Horticulture is supposed to employ special techniques in cultivating plants, and it includes plants such as vegetables, trees, flowers, shrubs, fruits, and nuts.  I’m not sure if these definitions applied in this section, but it helped me to put horticulture in a context.

Title XI: Crop Insurance. Most farmers, if they can, buy crop insurance so that in the case of an intense drought or other catastrophe, they can still survive until the next year.  The federal government picks up an average of about 60% of the premium for crop insurance.

Title XII: Miscellaneous. In the current farm bill, this Title includes provisions for socially disadvantaged and limited-resource producers, livestock, and other odds and ends.

One of the most fascinating parts of the Farm Bill is that in general, it is not a partisan bill.  That the House turned their bill into a partisan question last week was quite unusual.  The usual divisions are between agricultural states and non-agricultural states.  Sometimes the ag states subdivide along commodity lines of, “We like peanuts but not wheat,” or “We like alfalfa but not cotton,” but nearly always the alliances are regional.  Most commonly, if I am tracking a vote, I look for party crossover votes, but with the farm bill, the split of the votes can be quite unpredictable, which makes analyzing who voted how quite interesting.



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