The Common Good
August 2012

'As You Sow, So Shall You Reap'

by Robert Gronski | August 2012

Will Congress cut food stamps, conservation, and the farmer safety net—or fail to pass a Farm Bill at all?

THE FARM BILL has a profound impact on farming and nutrition. Three key things the multi-faceted bill provides are: a safety net for farmers, incentives for conservation practices, and food assistance for low-income families. Congress writes the farm bill every five to six years; the most recent Farm Bill, approved in 2008, expires Oct. 1.

At present, nearly 80 percent of the bill’s roughly $100 billion a year in spending goes to the food-assistance category, most notably to food stamps—the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which now helps feed 46 million people in the U.S. Less than 10 percent of current Farm Bill funding supports water and soil conservation practices, such as no-till farming and preserving wetlands and grasslands.

In the past, a significant part of the bill has been commodity payments made under various programs to farmers of crops such as corn, wheat, rice, cotton, and soybeans (but not fruits or vegetables). As farmers are currently benefiting from high grain prices, while the government faces budget deficits, the next Farm Bill seems poised to recognize that the time has come to end commodity payments.

However, farmers, challenged by volatile swings in crop prices and by uncertain weather, still need a safety net. In lieu of commodity payments, the Senate version of the Farm Bill, passed in late June, moves toward subsidizing crop insurance, which covers farmers—including fruit and vegetable growers—against both poor yields and poor prices.

The Senate version of the bill includes cuts in conservation and food stamps—but not as severe as what the House has in mind. If present policies had continued, Farm Bill spending was projected to be nearly $1 trillion over the next decade. The Senate bill cuts approximately $23 billion from that 10-year total. In May, the House Agriculture Committee said it was aiming to cut approximately $33 billion.

Some House Republicans have argued that the full $33 billion should be cut from food stamps. Chair Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) has reportedly suggested his committee will look for cuts in other areas as well.

At press time, it was not clear how a House bill, once out of committee, could pass a floor vote: Some members seem strongly committed to deep cuts and others insist they will hold firm on government assistance to nutrition, the farmer safety net, or conservation. Indeed, at press time it was not certain House leadership would even bring the Farm Bill to the floor prior to the summer recess and fall elections. If a new Farm Bill has not passed the House, the House and Senate versions have not been reconciled, and the final version has not been signed into law by Oct. 1, then a temporary extension of the current bill will be needed—and even that is likely to be a challenge for this Congress.

Farmers of faith believe that God called them to participate in the creative cycle of food production and stewardship of the land. They value the development of public policies that help with the challenges of volatile markets and the whims of weather. But they also need incentives to help them practice good stewardship of the land and waters.

The Farm Bill will not truly shape food policy well until it deals more forcefully with the fact that an ever-narrowing handful of corporate agribusinesses shapes the food industry. The time has come to advance the principles of sustainable agriculture and healthy food systems—preferably local ones that return healthy foods and jobs to the community. This critical time is an opportunity for farmers, anti-hunger groups, conservationists, and others to urge policy reforms that provide food for all while ensuring we’ll have the farmers and resources to grow food in the future.

Robert Gronski (bob@ncrlc.com) is the policy coordinator for the National Catholic Rural Life Conference.

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