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.

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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.

PILT

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.

CONSERVATION

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.

CROP INSURANCE AND CLIMATE RISK

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.

NUTRITION ASSISTANCE

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.

MISCELLANEOUS

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.

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