Why did Congress let the Farm Bill expire on Sept. 30? You might suspect this piece of mega-legislation collapsed under its own colossal weight: over 700 pages, with 15 different spending categories totaling $100 billion per year, touching everything from corn subsidies to organics research to food stamps to rural enterprise development…
Admittedly, the Farm Bill has gotten creaky. Born in the midst of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, it was intended to protect our food and farming systems from the fickle forces of the weather, price fluctuations, and the global economy. Loans, price supports, and grain reserves helped family farmers receive fair return for their crops. Conservation incentives rewarded farmers for doing things like idling cropland and maintaining hedgerows that prevented erosion and provided natural habitat for birds and wildlife. Nutrition assistance programs tried to ensure that every American got something to eat.
Eighty years later, all of these seemingly straightforward, reasonable goals have become complicated and controversial. Farm Bill subsidy programs lavish landowners with billions of dollars regardless of whether they grow crops. There are essentially no meaningful limits on how much income a farmer can make and still earn subsidies, or on how much assistance a farmer can receive. Most subsidy dollars go to the country’s largest operations in less than 50 congressional districts. Representatives from these districts have gotten the bill passed every five years or so by cutting a deal with congressional champions of food stamps and nutrition assistance, crucial programs that, as of 2008, account for 80 cents of every Farm Bill dollar spent. Conservation is the odd man out: Environmental programs are first on the chopping block whenever budgets need to be tightened. Mounting pressure to cut federal spending has only made passing this legislative behemoth even less popular.
Yet early this summer, the full Senate passed a version of the Farm Bill that seemed to move food policy, however incrementally, in a positive direction.
For the story on why that bill went nowhere after things looked promising (I’m looking at you, Republican-controlled House of Representatives), as well as Imhoff’s take on why the farm bill matters and what ought to be done with it, check out his full post.
And for a look at the impact of the farm bill’s expiration on dairy farmers, check out this article from Lisa Rathke of the AP.