Nothing certain about farm bill except continued uncertainty
Tuesday, September 24, 2013 3:31 AM
Farmers have been pretty quiet about the controversy surrounding food stamps, even though it is part of a key bill - the farm bill. The House of Representatives voted last week to cut about $40 billion in nutrition aid, or food stamps, over 10 years and deny benefits to millions starting in 2014. This caused quite a stir with vocal debate.
The reason farmers have been relatively quiet is because it is a partisan issue that doesn't have as much of an impact on them as the other components of the broader bill that includes agricultural subsidies. The cut in food stamps was pushed by Republicans in the House, but it likely won't go far in the Democratic Senate, which previously had agreed to a more modest reduction in food stamp spending.
The problem for farmers, though, is that the issue further stalls the farm bill because food stamps is a major component of the bill, which had always been a bipartisan piece of legislation since the 1970s. Because partisanship is so rampant today, lawmakers have been trying for more than two years to agree on a new five-year farm bill that would continue financing for farm and nutrition programs. A temporary extension of the farm bill that expired nine months ago ends Monday, Sept. 30.
The biggest problem for farmers is the uncertainty the partisan fight in Washington causes them. The farm bill has traditionally been used to support farmers when crop prices are temporarily low, to encourage conservation to protect soil and prevent over-supply, and to provide subsidized crop insurance against adverse events such as drought, hail and excess rain.
Crop insurance, which is a key issue for farmers, accounts for just 10 percent of the total spending in the bill. The reason for the partisan bickering is because the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly referred to as food stamps, and other nutrition-related programs account for 80 percent of the spending.
The farm bill is much more than food stamps and crop insurance, though. Many components remain in the background, but are important to rural America.
The Center for Rural Affairs, based in Lyon, Neb., has some ideas on what a good farm bill should look like. The center is a private, nonprofit organization with a mission to establish strong rural communities, social and economic justice, environmental stewardship and opportunity for all.
It notes that there are good provisions in both the previous House and Senate versions of the bill that should be carried into the final farm bill. The center suggests that the bill should include the following items.
It should invest in rural economic development by encouraging producers to earn more and expand their businesses through the Value Added Producer Grants Program and provide loans and training to small businesses through the Rural Microentrepreneur Program.
It should invest in the future of healthy farms, food and people by harnessing the power of small businesses and local and organic food to strengthen rural communities and create jobs while also providing the tools, training and access to capital that beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers need to succeed.
It should reform farm subsidies and level the playing field by maintaining effective payment limitations on farm program payments so they are targeted to small and mid-sized farmers, and include income limitations to qualify for federal crop insurance subsidies as the first step to reform.
It should protect our air, soil and water by rewarding farmers for environmental stewardship by fully funding conservation programs such as Conservation Stewardship Program, resist raiding long-term conservation efforts to pay for short-term disaster fixes, preserve marginal landscapes by removing federal crop insurance subsidies for farmers that break new sod for crop production, and link federal crop insurance support to conservation of wetlands and fragile soils.
Not all the suggestions are free of controversy, as subsidies have also been the subject of bickering, but in general these are provisions that have broad support. Still, it shows that the farm bill is more complex than the items up for partisan bickering and it is of great importance to rural communities.
We'll be hearing a lot more about food stamps in the coming days as the fight is sure to continue. Farmers, though, will anxiously be waiting - perhaps a long time - for some clarity on the issues that are important to their future.