7 Things to Know about the New Farm Bill

The 2014 Farm Bill is up for renewal soon, as it traditionally is every five years. This bill and the agriculture industry in general are often ignored by the mainstream media and those involved in political discourse. Yet changes in the 2018 Farm Bill will potentially affect thousands of lives of regular Americans across the country—and not just farmers. The agriculture industry is the among the most regulated of all industries in America, and the regulation costs taxpayers billions of dollars. Previous farm bills have included legislation that encompasses a wide range of issues, from organic farm subsidies and endangered species protection to international trade policy and food stamps. Every American is affected in some way, shape, or form by this legislation, so here are a few things to know about the upcoming agriculture bill.

  1. Crop insurance: Subsidized crop insurance is now the largest federal farm safety net program, criticised by some as an out-of-control farm handout system. According to the Congressional Research Service, 94% of farm program support is channeled to support six commodities—peanuts, rice, soybeans, corn, cotton, and, of course, wheat–yet these represent only 28% of total agricultural production. Free market fans and health-conscious legislators alike question the propping up of these specific products. The livestock and specialty crop (crops not listed above) industries survive without these significant subsidies, so some lawmakers are looking to cut this safety net budget.
  2. Farming is a tough business: In his opening statement to the House Committee on Agriculture at the April 18th meeting concerning the Agriculture & Nutrition Act of 2018, Republican Chairman K. Michael Conaway (TX) commented, “All of you know the economic condition of rural America right now. We have seen a 52-percent drop in net farm income over the past 5 years. Chapter 12 bankruptcies are up 33 percent over the past 2 years alone. And not long ago, two key universities informed us that two-thirds of the representative farms they use to model the economic conditions of agriculture are currently in marginal or poor financial condition. … We have a duty to act.” This is the urgent context for the upcoming reforms.
  3. History: The first farm bill was part of President FDR’s New Deal back in 1933. It was originally created to keep food prices fair for both farmers and consumers, ensure an adequate food supply in the wake of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, and protect and sustain America’s natural resources. In the last 70 years, the scope and budget allotment of the bill has widened significantly, yet its primary purposes remain the same.
  4. SNAP: The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) will likely be changed in the upcoming bill. The proposed legislation calls for able-bodied adults (ages 18-59) to work or be enrolled in a job-training program for at least 20 hours a week in order to be eligible for food aid. Republicans claim the work requirement proposals are meant to help those who have fallen on hard times get back on their feet, off public assistance, and into the workforce. This potential change has been criticised by Democrats, who believe that these SNAP changes would increase food insecurity and hardship. The bill also calls for creating a Duplicative Enrollment Database to cut down on SNAP fraud, especially duplicative benefits across state lines.
  5. Endangered Species Act and the EPA: The current farm bill includes environmental regulations of almost all American farmers, even those who don’t receive subsidies. Critics point to compensation problems with some of the environmental protection policies, like the Endangered Species Act, for example; few farmers, ranchers, and other property owners are fully compensated when restrictions are placed on the use of their land. Democrats and Republicans disagree about the proper extent of such regulation. Many Republicans want to address what they call excessive overreach by agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency. Environmentalists, however, condemn other provisions of the current draft that loosen pesticide restrictions.
  6. Sugar: The 2014 Farm Bill places artificial limits on agricultural sales, such as the marketing allotments in the federal sugar program. The current draft of the 2018 bill maintains restrictions on sugar imports that prop of the price of domestically-produced sugar. Critics say these market controls drive up food prices, especially because sugar is such a common commodity, which hurt the poor the most. In 2011, former U.S. Senator (IN) and Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Richard Lugar said on this topic, “Every time Hoosiers see sugar listed as a food ingredient, they should know that they are paying more than they need to because of the current federal sugar program. … Government intervention to keep prices high for a small group of powerful farming interests violates the free market concept of the American economy.”
  7. Organics: The draft bill proposes small changes in farm policy that reflect growing concerns about pesticide usage and health. As proposed, it authorizes an expansion in enforcement of the National Organic Program to prevent fraudulent labeling of imported produce. In addition, the new bill would authorize more funding to promote farmers’ markets.

Soren Hansen, a junior, is a proud member of the Program of Liberal Studies who loves discussing what it means to be human. She is also pursuing a minor in Constitutional Studies. She can be reached at mhansen3@nd.edu.