Farm Bill 2012 – Where (If Anywhere) Is it Headed? By Sarah Buzogany

2012 has been a big year for farm and food policy.  Congress has been working to create and pass a farm bill – a 4-5 year piece of legislation that addresses everything from commodities to conservation programs, food stamps, farmers’ markets, and foreign aid.  The current farm bill is set to expire September 30th of this year, but the future of the 2012 Farm Bill is still uncertain.

2012 FARM BILL PROCESS

In normal procedure, each chamber of Congress – the Senate and the House of Representatives – must pass a version of the farm bill from their Agriculture Committee and then pass that bill on the floor where other members have a chance to add amendments.  The two versions of the bill then go to a Conference between the houses to agree on a bill to send to the President , which he ultimately will sign or veto.

The process for the 2012 Farm Bill has been far from normal.  The full Senate passed their farm bill in June.  The House Agriculture Committee passed their version in the middle of July; however, the full House has yet to vote on the bill.  While the reasons for stalling are murky, many suspect that House leadership remains hesitant to bring such a contentious issue to the floor so close to the election season.

POTENTIAL OUTLOOK

Here are some highlights from the two bills for just a few of hundreds of programs and policies authorized under the farm bill.  The provisions outlined here are by no means certain to make it into a final 2012 Farm Bill.

Commodities: Farm commodities are basic staple crops (wheat, feed grains, rice, cotton, etc) and often receive the greatest portion of government payments when compared to fruits, vegetables or other specialty crops.  By all accounts, direct payments to commodity growers will end with the new farm bill.  Few people still try to justify paying farmers a set payment regardless of their yield, market prices, or if they even grow anything at all.  Increased crop insurance options would replace direct payments, with the government subsidizing growers’ insurance premiums by up to 60%.  While safety nets are important, there are many aspects of this arrangement that remain favorable to large commodity growers. While the Senate bill would reduce subsidies for farmers with incomes over $750,000, the House bill has no such limits meaning that millionaires could continue to receive highly subsidized crop insurance.  Additionally, crop insurance is not currently as readily available or accessible for small, organic, or specialty crop growers that grow a variety of fruits and vegetables.

Conservation:  The Conservation Title of the farm bill is made up of many programs that aim to mitigate the environmental impacts of agriculture.  Some of these programs occur on working lands (those currently being farmed) while others are land retirement programs.  Conservation takes a large hit in both versions of the farm bill.  Both the House Agriculture Committee and the Senate bills cut the Conservation Title by over six billion dollars.  Exacerbating the problem, the House did not provide a provision similar to the Senate’s requiring farmers purchasing crop insurance to follow any conservation requirements in order to receive federal subsidies.  With crop insurance expanding so dramatically, and with potential extreme cuts to conservation programs, the environmental impacts of agriculture could increase significantly.

Furthermore, the House passed a stand-alone drought assistance bill that would provide $383 million in aid to livestock farmers and certain fruit growers for this summer’s drought, at an expense of $639 million cuts to the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), two of the most heavily used working lands conservation programs.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP):  SNAP is the new term for food stamps and is a federally funded program that provides monetary assistance to low-income individuals and families to purchase food. Considering SNAP comprises about 80% of the entire farm bill’s nearly one trillion dollar budget (over ten years), in a budget shrinking climate, it took large cuts.  The Senate version of the bill would cut SNAP by about $4 billion, while the House would cut nearly $16 billion.  The House bill would eliminate categorical eligibility, an option used by some states to qualify households for SNAP and other assistance programs.  Under the House version, the Congressional Budget Office estimates nearly 1.8 million people would lose their food stamp benefits and 280,000 children would lose their eligibility for free and reduced school meals.

Local Foods:  While there were no monumental gains, programs to promote local foods and small farms fared relatively well in both versions of the farm bill.  The House bill contains a provision to increase farm to school flexibility in small school districts, and both the Senate and House bills provide provisions to allow SNAP to be accepted at Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs.

NEXT STEPS

Time runs hazardously low for the 2012 Farm Bill to pass by regular procedure.  When Congress returns from recess on September 9, lawmakers will only have eight legislative days before the current bill expires.  If the full House doesn’t pass a bill to go to Conference with the Senate, leadership from both houses may hold an unofficial pseudo conference and create a deal among very few legislators.  Alternatively, Congress could pass an extension (ranging from several months to one year) and begin the process anew.  In the event of an extension, many key programs would expire or would not have mandatory funding, and it is unclear if they would ever get resurrected.  In my opinion, the best step forward is passing a food and farm bill before September 30, 2012.

Sarah Buzogany is beginning her second year in the FPAN program.  She spent this summer in Washington, DC working for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and playing on way too many rec league sports teams.

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