First published as an Op/Ed in the New York Times
Amid a five-year farm recession, continuing woes for small dairy farmers and a trade war with China, a lot is riding on this year’s Farm Bill. But the version Congress approved this week and that President Trump is expected to sign could make a bad situation worse.
The Farm Bill Ignores the Real Troubles of U.S. Agriculture
True farming reform means adjusting the system to support small and midsize producers and cultivating a more sustainable system of agriculture.
For years, Farm Bill subsidies have been skewed to benefit the rich and powerful. The 2018 subsidies — nearly $900 billion worth — reinforces the status quo, and that’s a danger not just to small farmers but to the nation’s farms, period.
From 1996 to 2016, the top 10 percent of the companies that received the Farm Bill’s commodity subsidies — the biggest operations in sales — accounted for 77 percent of the total. This year’s bill continues to offer enormous subsidies to large corporations rather than prioritizing the needs of struggling small farmers. Farms in the top 10 percent for crop sales received 68 percent of all crop insurance subsidies in 2014, according to the American Enterprise Institute.
Yet this year’s Farm Bill exempts marketing loan gains and loan deficiency payments (generally used by farmers when, because market prices are low, they would rather store than sell their crop) from payment limitations. It also permits farmers’ children and spouses — without ever having set foot on the farm — to count as “actively engaged” in farming, thus qualifying them for $125,000 worth of subsidy payments. It also allows nephews, nieces and cousins to be “daisy chained” in to receive these payments as well.
“Instead of making much-needed reforms to the nation’s farm safety net programs, the final 2018 Farm Bill expands existing loopholes,” the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition noted.
Many of these subsidies aren’t even going to rural farmers working the land: The Environmental Working Group has found that nearly 18,000 Americans living in the nation’s largest cities received more than $63 million in farm subsidies in 2015 and 2016.
Senator Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa, tried to attach an amendment that would tighten the bill’s definition of “actively engaged in farming,” ensuring that subsidy payments would be collected only by those who live or work on a farm, but it was rejected by the conference committee leaders who put together the final version of the bill.
It’s no wonder the conservative Heritage Foundation calls the Farm Bill a “reverse Robin Hood” program.
The new bill will also cut funding for the Conservation Stewardship Program, which encourages proper land management. That program has promoted crop rotation, cover cropping, farm forage-based grazing and other methodologies that prevent soil erosion and improve the environmental sustainability of farming operations.
Congress generally gets away with Farm Bill cronyism with little to no public outcry. This could be in part because its creators advertise the bill with pictures of rolling wheat and young farm families and suggest that the bill helps keep American agriculture alive. But it may also be because the bill itself is gigantic and difficult to summarize. It coverscommodity subsidies, land conservation, agricultural trade policy, food stamps, farm credit loans, rural economic development, agricultural research and teaching policy, forestry and horticulture programs, pesticide use and federal crop insurance policy.
The first “farm bill” was passed in 1933 in response to the ravages of the Depression and the Dust Bowl. It offered farmers a combination of commodity price supports and supply controls while seeking to reverse the catastrophic damage to soil and grassland caused by overproduction. In the 85 years since then, the Farm Bill has turned into an $800 billion-plus fusion of complex programs and policies.
House Republicans, even those in the fiscally conservative Freedom Caucus, have demonstrated a widespread apathy for true agricultural reform. Democrats denounced Republican cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly food stamps) but rarely highlight the hypocrisy inherent in Republicans’ willingness to pour taxpayer dollars into the pockets of large agribusiness corporations — indeed, they often side with Republicans in promulgating these programs.
This year’s bill could be worse. The House’s iteration of it, which was passed on a party-line vote in May, would have made it possible for 10 percent or more of the nation’s commodity farms to become eligible for unlimited subsidy payments overnight. It axed funding and authorityfor the Conservation Stewardship Program, cut funding for several conservation programs, and failed to renew mandatory funding for several local and organic food-encouraging programs — including a farmers’ market promotion initiative, a grant program for young and beginning farmers, and a cost share program that helps farmers procure and maintain organic certification.
Most notoriously, the House bill’s creators introduced stricter work requirements for users of food stamps, requiring able-bodied adult beneficiaries to work or participate in work training for 20 hours per week. The reforms could have caused as many as two million food stamp recipients to lose benefits or see them reduced.
The final bill maintains most of this coverage. It folds the farmers’ market and young and beginning farmers grant programs into a Local Agriculture Market Program that will get $60 million in permanent funding going forward. It also combines the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program with Section 2501, which serves socially disadvantaged and veteran farmers and ranchers into a Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach Program. That will provide $50 million yearly over the next four years to help these groups get started in agriculture — a growing need as the average farmer’s age continues to increase and as American farmers continue to skew white and male.
The final bill does make some changes to food stamps aimed at work force development programs, better case management and encouraging nutritious food purchases, but leaves out House Republicans’ broader plans for work requirements.
In recent years, American farmers have endured slumping prices for corn, wheat and other commodities caused by a glut of grain worldwide. The Wall Street Journal warned in early 2017 that “the next few years could bring the biggest wave of farm closures since the 1980s.”
The alarming trends call for urgent attention and action — but it’s not what we get from the new bill. As fewer and older farmers produce a less diverse and sustainable array of food, we desperately need to support small and midsize producers and cultivate a more sustainable system of agriculture. Ultimately, Farm Bill reform is not just about saving taxpayer money or fighting cronyism — it is about saving the nation’s farms.
Gracy Olmstead is a writer who contributes to The American Conservative, The Week, The Washington Post and other publications.