Understanding the farm bill and its history

Emily Armentrout

On Jan. 1, 2013, Congress passed the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, which was an extension of the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, commonly known as the “farm bill.” This extension allowed the government to avoid the fiscal cliff, but it expired Sept. 30, 2013. While attempting to pass the next farm bill, the House and the Senate had disagreements over components of their proposed bills. This is the source of the current dispute and the reason a new farm bill has yet to be passed.

The farm bill is a piece of omnibus legislation, which means that it contains multiple components but is passed as a single bill. Farm bills last for five years, after which they expire. Nutrition programs, like SNAP, make up approximately 70 percent of the farm bill. Crop insurance, commodities and conservation make up the other 30 percent of the bill.

The House proposed a new farm bill, known as the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013, which reduced funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by approximately $40 billon, according to Frank Lucas, Chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture. SNAP is commonly referred to as the food stamp program.  The Senate proposed their own version of the bill, in which they want to reduce SNAP funding by roughly $4 billion.

As of December, Indiana was 28th in participation percentage and 17th in total number of participants nationwide. As of Dec. 6, 14.1 percent of Hoosiers participated in SNAP, according to the Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service. Total annual cost of the food stamp program is $71.8 billion, with approximately 47.6 million Americans using the program, which is 15.4 percent of the United States’ population.

According to Ag Web’s John Block, there are sections of the bill that do not receive as much attention as nutrition but could prove to be just as important, like trade.

"When we plant our crops, we can count on seeing one-third of that production going to some other country," reported Block. The farm bill also may be able to deal with the trade barrier California has set, which keeps California from importing eggs from farms that don't meet their hen housing requirements.

In an article written by Madison Hepburn of Indiana Public Media, Indiana Farm Bureau National Policy Advisor Kyle Cline was optimistic about the progress being made.

"Having a farm bill is crucial now and we're positive, we're feeling good about where we are and where we need to be and hopefully we'll have that finished in January," Cline told Indiana Public Media.

Modern farm bills are descendants of the Agriculture Adjustment Act of 1933. The Adjustment Act was created in an attempt to curb farm poverty. In the 1930s, farmers were paid to leave certain land unused in an effort to allow soil to recover after farmers planted too many crops to make up for the dramatically low prices of their produce, which caused the soil to become extremely eroded. After the Adjustment Act of 1933, the government started purchasing surplus crops during high-quality crop years and selling the crops during poor production years to keep crop prices more stable.

Over the years, the farm bill has changed. Most of the components of the farm bills are still intended to supplement farmers’ income, but farmers are no longer paid to keep land unused. Congress has made multiple changes to the bill over the years. It is expected that when a new farm bill is written, the direct payments farmers have been receiving for years, averaging close to $5 billion a year, will no longer be part of the legislation.

Posted on 2013 Dec 30