By Dave Colson, MOFGA Agricultural Services Director
In years past the U.S. Farm Bill would pass through the legislative process with only brief notice by the media. Since the 1970s the House and Senate Agriculture Committees balanced competing interests by combining different programs in this “omnibus” bill. With 12 to 14 separate titles covering everything from nutrition programs to commodity programs to specialty crops and organic initiatives, farm bills are usually passed every five years or so.
The intention is to set U.S. agricultural policy for a five-year period to give stability and continuity to the farming community. The previous Farm Bill was passed in 2008; the process for writing the new bill began in 2011 and continued through the fall of 2012.
Over the cycle of the last few farm bills, interest in conservation programs, local foods and organic production has grown, culminating in new programs and funding in those areas. While these initiatives get only a very small percent of the overall funding, many in the sustainable agriculture community saw their inclusion as a step in a new direction. At the same time pressure to reduce spending for commodity support programs has been growing, especially when prices for major commodities have increased in recent years.
By the fall of 2012, as Congress debated the upcoming “fiscal cliff,” the Senate passed its version of the Farm Bill, which maintained support for nutrition programs, continued the shift from commodity payment to crop insurance and included many of the conservation and organic initiatives from the 2008 bill, while offering cost savings of $23 billion.
While debate over the fiscal cliff drew the attention of Congress, House leadership could not put together enough votes to pass a Farm Bill, so an extension of the 2008 bill was passed at the last minute. While continuing basic programs from the previous Farm Bill, the extension, which expires in late September 2013, left out many of the initiatives for which the organic and sustainable farm community had won support.
In June 2013, the Senate had passed its attempt at a bill, which is fairly similar to last year’s version, with some modest reductions in nutrition and commodity programs. The hope in June was that the House would bring to the floor a bill that could be passed and to then move on to “conference” where House and Senate agricultural leaders could work out a bill that both bodies could vote on. Instead, the House passed a bill that separated the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP – formerly called food stamps) from the other “farm” titles, which makes the process for aligning the two bills more difficult.
Whether we have a new Farm Bill that will continue to move agricultural policy in the direction of sustainable and organic practices or just an extension of the status quo is the big question. How we farm, how we support the people who produce our food, and how we provide for those who are hungry – these questions need to be part of the national discussion. MOFGA urges Congress to take up these issues and pass a Farm Bill that moves us into the realities of the 21st century.