New farm bill still favors big ag


We’ve been following the glacial progress of the latest Farm Bill for three years now. This massive bill, passed every five years, doles out nearly $1 trillion for food stamps and school lunches, farm subsidies, and conservation programs.

The Farm Bill got its start during the Dust Bowl years, when it was meant as temporary emergency assistance for beleaguered family farms.

The Farm Bill was originally meant to help small family farms recover from the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl years.

But since then, it’s become a permanent fixture of the agricultural landscape, with three-quarters of its subsidy assistance going to giant agribusiness corporations. It’s also become a major source of nutrition assistance for the poor and children – 80 percent of the bill’s funding goes to food programs.

In this gridlocked Congress, it’s surprising to see any piece of legislation move toward passage, but the Farm Bill cleared the House this week and is now headed to the Senate, and President Obama has indicated that he’ll sign it. House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., reportedly called the compromise version “a miracle”.

Following is a summary of some of HCN’s concerns about the bill as it was being negotiated, and how those issues are addressed in the current version of the bill.


Payments in Lieu of Taxes is a program that distributes more than $400 million each year to local governments in counties with a high percentage of federal land, to make up for some of the tax revenue lost from those lands. Counties use the money for basic services like road maintenance and police and fire departments. The lion’s share is distributed in the West, especially to Utah, New Mexico, California, Nevada and Arizona. PILT’s authorization expired last year; the bill’s final version restores PILT funding, much to the relief of many rural counties.


The new version contains $56 billion for various conservation programs over the next 10 years. That’s a $4 billion cut from the last farm bill.

There are some bright spots, though. In 2012, we reported on sodbusting farmers plowing up virgin Northern Great Plains prairie to plant corn for ethanol. The new farm bill contains a version of the Sodsaver Prairie Protection Act, which limits crop insurance subsidies on grassland newly converted to farming. It’s meant to discourage farmers from turning native prairie into cornfields.

A provision in the farm bill would encourage farmers not to plow up native prairie for crops. Photo courtesy Flickr user Jared Hansen.

Other measures are meant to help ranchers, and to increase forest health. One program would give ranchers a permanent source of disaster assistance for livestock losses. Another program would expedite treatment for national forest lands impaired by insect and disease outbreaks, while preserving large old-growth trees. It would also encourage public-private collaboration on forest thinning to reduce wildfire risk. Firefighting capabilities would be helped by a provision to let the Forest Service lease some modern air tankers.

The new bill also provides more than $1 billion for a program meant to save working farm and ranch lands. The Agricultural Lands Easement program, which consolidates two existing programs, provides funding to pay landowners to put permanent conservation easements on their lands. Normally such federal payments require 25 percent matching cash from local governments, but now the Secretary of Agriculture can waive that requirement when a community can’t come up with such funds.

Unfortunately, the Conservation Reserve Program, which encourages landowners to take sensitive, erosion-prone lands out of production and plant them in grass to support wildlife and birds, takes a hit. The last farm bill allowed up to 32 million acres in the program, saving an estimated 450 million tons of soil from eroding away each year, but the new bill cuts that to 24 million acres.


The $90 billion allotted to federal crop insurance is a $6 billion increase from the last go-round. The crop insurance tab has been growing dramatically, thanks to more frequent drought and other weather disasters. Taxpayers cover 60 percent of farmers’ premium costs, and last year the subsidies added up to $14 billion.  An amendment to cap farm and subsidy size failed.

As we reported last fall, the farm bill is missing a major opportunity to reduce climate risks to agriculture:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture acknowledged earlier this year that the industry’s vulnerability to extreme weather is likely to increase and that federal crop insurance is “an increasingly important risk management tool.” Even in 2007, the Government Accountability Office recognized extreme weather-related risks to flood and crop insurance, recommending the Secretary of Agriculture analyze how climate change will affect federal crop insurance over the long term.

Crop insurance reform could reward farmers who use management techniques, like no-till farming, cover crops, and more efficient irrigation, that help their crops weather extreme weather events. Such incentives aren’t part of this bill, however. Nor is an earlier Senate amendment to decrease crop insurance payments to the wealthiest farmers.

Changes to the crop insurance program actually help perpetuate those farm subsidies. So-called “direct payments” of $4.5 billion are eliminated in this bill (paying farmers whether they grow crops or not). Instead, the government will cover any losses that farmers incur before crop insurance kicks in, notes the Washington Post:

This is one of the more contentious parts of the farm bill. Some critics have warned that this insurance program could cost far more than expected, depending on how crop prices shift. And the Environmental Working Group has argued that a disproportionate amount of these subsidies go to the wealthiest farm operators.


The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, helps feed nearly 9 million Westerners (and close to 50 million Americans), mostly children, seniors, and the unemployed and disabled. House Republicans wanted to cut $40 billion from the program over the next decade. The new bill cuts only $8 billion from SNAP, but that’s twice as much as the Senate was willing to cut during negotiations this spring.


A few other tidbits about what’s in the bill:

  • Mandatory labeling explaining in which country a meat animal was raised and slaughtered
  • Authorization for colleges and universities to grow industrial hemp for research (provided they’re located in one of the 11 states that allow hemp cultivation)
  • $1.5 million for sheep research and marketing of sheep products
  • Continued subsidies for sugar production

One of the most notable amendments that’s not in the bill is one proposed by Steve King, R-Iowa, that would have banned state governments from imposing standards for crop and livestock raising that would affect other states (for example, if King’s amendment had passed, California could no longer require that any egg sold in the state be produced under its humane-farming laws). That’s good news for anyone concerned about the treatment of livestock.

The new farm bill won't prevent states from imposing more humane standards on livestock producers. Photo courtesy of Compassion in World Farming.




Overall, though, the new farm bill continues to ladle out the corporate largesse for which it’s long been criticized, while cutting aid to those who need it most. The Washington Post even goes so far as to suggest Obama veto it for that reason:

It is only a slight exaggeration to say that this legislative grotesquerie gives to the rich and takes from the poor.

Tipping the financial scales at $956 billion over 10 years, or just over $1 billion per page, the hideously complex bill is supposedly a compromise that reforms crop subsidy programs. To be sure, it eliminates a program that gave billions each year in “direct payments” to farmers regardless of individual need or economic conditions, and it incentivizes participation in soil conservation programs.

But what the bill takes from the ag lobby with one hand, it largely gives back with the other.

For those wanting further wonky details about where the farm bill’s money goes, here’s the Congressional Budget Office’s analysis.

Jodi Peterson is the managing editor at High Country News.

Mark Bailey
Mark Bailey Subscriber
Feb 01, 2014 09:40 AM
Jodi, too bad publishing can't be more like farming. To start with you would have an extra $trillion headed your way. Like ranchers paying $1.35 to graze a cow and a calf on public lands for a month, you would have print and production costs 1/10 that of market and at 1962 rates. We taxpayers would pay for your insurance to pay you in case your subscribers didn't want to buy enough papers. If you didn't sell everything you printed we would buy the extra and put it in storage. Or, if there were too many other papers out there, we would pay you not to print. All this largesse would provide a permanent contingent of Gucci Gulch lobbyists to keep you in the green with all the other cronies long into the future.
Terri Macey
Terri Macey Subscriber
Feb 04, 2014 02:49 PM
The 8 billion dollar cut from the SNAP program is obscene. has an excellent interview with Joel Berg, the Director of New York's Coalition on Hunger and former Clinton USDA official, who points out the harm this cut does to the neediest Americans and the refusal of the press to acknowledge this draconian cut. To quote Berg, “Our political system is basically evil versus spineless now.”
Adam Neff
Adam Neff
Feb 04, 2014 03:13 PM
Nothing is perfect, especially not with our current congressional gridlock. I'd say this is about as good as we were going to get. The reduction is CRP is the biggest bummer for me. CRP lands don't get near the attention they should for wildlife habitat.
James Bowen
James Bowen
Feb 04, 2014 03:48 PM
 Mark Bailey made the perfect observation. No way could I match that.
"Jodi, too bad publishing can't be more like farming. To start with you would have an extra $trillion headed your way. Like ranchers paying $1.35 to graze a cow and a calf on public lands for a month, you would have print and production costs 1/10 that of market and at 1962 rates. We taxpayers would pay for your insurance to pay you in case your subscribers didn't want to buy enough papers. If you didn't sell everything you printed we would buy the extra and put it in storage. Or, if there were too many other papers out there, we would pay you not to print. All this largesse would provide a permanent contingent of Gucci Gulch lobbyists to keep you in the green with all the other cronies long into the future."
Larry Bullock
Larry Bullock
Feb 08, 2014 08:57 PM
     I agree with M.Bailey and T.Macey.
     CRP and other subsidies prolong agricultural dominance of the land, which is the biggest destroyer of wildlife habitat. All too often, disaster declarations and the importunings of governors allow ranching and farming of CRP acreage without regard to its affects on wildlife. Ag producers receive some or all of the CRP subsidy anyway. It's one more example of legal graft or fraud.
     Less CRP funding is better; none would be best.
Brad Wilson
Brad Wilson
Oct 29, 2015 03:58 PM
It's not true that the farm bill "was meant as temporary emergency assistance for beleaguered family farms." It was designed as market management, (of price and supply) which has been needed from at least 60 years prior to the Great Depression on into the 21st century, (as farm crops don't self correct in free markets very much at all under most market conditions for 150 years) The Farm Bill fixed that without the need for any subsidies. Subsidies started in 1961 (wheat, feedgrains,) 1964 (cotton, which also had some 33-9) 1977 (rice) and 1998 (soybeans). Market management was ended in 1996, after reducing it to extremely low levels 1953-1995 (except sugar, also extremely low, was not ended, and has no subsidies). The government does not "cover any losses" with crop insurance but rather it's disguised revenue insurance subsidies and if prices stay low it won't pay, or if they stay high, it will pay when not needed. All subsidies hide the massive reduction in market prices, (since free markets don't self correct, [they "lack price responsiveness" "on both the supply and the demand sides for aggregate agriculture"]). So prices are usually low without Price Floors. That's how nonfarm agribusiness grain/cotton/milk etc. buyers have been subsidized (since 1953) by 8 times as much as the amount of subsidies (since 1961). Farmers, large and small, have had $4 trillion taken away and given to agribusiness, by allowing free markets, as the US has lost massively on farm exports (exporting at a loss for more than 3 decades, and we're the dominant exporter). Farmers got back $500 billion in subsidies for a net reduction of $3.5 trillion. Reforms require Price Floors to make agbiz pay fair prices with no subsidies. Cheap prices from low/no Price Floors are the biggest contributor to climate change, as we've lost our livestock, (to eat grass, alfalfa, hay, to give an economic foundation for growing these crops as part of Resource Conserving Crop Rotations). It's destroying the infrastructure for diversity. Green subsidies don't fix that at all. Cf. Food from Family Farms Act, of the National Family Farm Coaltion, or the Market Driven Inventory System of the National Farmers Union. Most of the top 10% of subsidy recipients are family-sized farms or very similar. The bottom half of recipients are, at most, less than 5% of a full-time family sized farm.