Food Fight Fizzles

The $956 billion farm bill that President Obama signed into law on Feb. 7, after three years of wrangling and brinksmanship between the House and Senate, got mixed reviews from progressive advocates.

It’s a complicated bill, covering nearly 1,000 pages. The farm bill funds everything from school lunches and food stamps to soil conservation and crop insurance. It sets agriculture policy for five years but it allocates spending for 10 years. The biggest spending item is the food stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which helps 47 million Americans. Over the next decade the farm bill cuts food assistance by $860 million a year, or about 1% of the total. That will cut benefits for roughly 850,000 families by an average of $90 a month, but it could be counted as a win since House Republican leaders wanted to cut $4 billion a year from food assistance. That would have tossed 3.8 million financially stressed families from the program.

The conference agreement included none of the draconian House provisions and it removes virtually no low-income households from SNAP, Robert Greenstein of the progressive Center for Budget and Policy Priorities reported. The SNAP cut tightens a loophole that allowed 17 states to stretch the benefit formula to boost the assistance above what it would otherwise be, he noted.

The bill continued subsidies for big agribusiness, despite both chambers previously committing to cut those subsidies. It eliminates direct payments amounting to $4.5 billion a year, which were paid to farm owners whether they actually farm or not. But the farm bill also increases crop insurance subsidies by nearly $6 billion; at least the farmer would have to incur a loss before collecting payments.

Among the highlights of the bill, according to Steph Larsen of the Center for Rural Affairs, is “conservation compliance,” which requires farmers receiving crop insurance subsidies to provide a minimum level of conservation, and Sodsaver, which would help preserve grasslands in six states. But the bill also cuts $4 billion from conservation programs.

On rural development, funding for rural programs is dangerously low, but the bill includes funding for two of the center’s high-priority programs — the Value Added Producer Grant program and the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance program.

The bill provides continued funding for training and mentoring for beginning farmers and ranchers, with a new emphasis on veteran farmers.

The bill also allows colleges, universities and state departments of agriculture to grow hemp (the non-intoxicating variety of marijuana) on an experimental basis for industrial uses without being penalized by the federal government.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), former chairman and now a senior member of the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, said the bill “is a sound, balanced, bipartisan bill. … This agreement is not perfect and each side had to give a little. For example, I had hoped the bill could do more for conservation, but recognize the limitations of this budget environment. So too did conferees have to negotiate on support for modest food assistance. I take solace in knowing that no one who needs this assistance will be kicked off the program.”

However, the Center for Rural Affairs ended up opposing the final Farm Bill. Traci Bruckner, the center’s senior associate for agriculture and conservation policy, said the conference committee stripped out bipartisan reforms, which passed both House and Senate, and which would have tightened the definition of being “actively engaged” in farming. The current definition allows mega-farms to gain additional payments by defining passive investors as qualified farmers, even though those investors provide no real labor or management on the farm, she said.

The Environmental Working Group credited Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) with pushing some of the positive features, including new conservation requirements for farm businesses that collect crop insurance subsidies and more funding for local and organic farmers. “But those important provisions are outweighed by new, expanded and largely unlimited subsidies that do too much to help the largest and most successful farm operations at the expense of family farmers and the environment,” said Scott Faber, EWG’s vice president of government affairs.

Still, many progressive producers were just relieved to get the bill through Congress. “The president’s signature brings closure to a long process of negotiations, sacrifice and compromise,” National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson said. “The result is a solid piece of legislation that provides an adequate safety net in times of need, aids the hungry, protects the environment, creates jobs, keeps Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL) intact and helps bolster rural economies.

“I am pleased that we now have certainty for our family farmers, ranchers, fishermen and hungry Americans. NFU will continue to work with the administration and policymakers on the implementation of this bill so that the US agriculture industry can continue to provide feed, fiber and fuel for our country and the world.”

The National Family Farm Coalition counted as wins the retention of the COOL laws and the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards protections; $4 billion allotted for livestock disaster funds; crop insurance payments linked to conservation compliance; and renewed funding for local and regional food systems.

NFFC Board President Ben Burkett said, “At least family farmers and ranchers are not wondering about the status of key programs, but many of the policies will continue to benefit corporate, export‐driven agriculture. 2014 is designated as the International Year of the Family Farmer, and we must keep in mind who real family farmers are and what they really need.”

Progressives doubtless would have gotten a much better farm bill if Stabenow and Harkin had been negotiating with Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, and if Nancy Pelosi had been calling the shots on the House podium. But since the left neglected to turn out enough voters to maintain the Democratic majority in 2010 and again in 2012, Stabenow and Harkin ended up haggling with House Ag Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and Vice Chairman Bob Goodman (R-Va.) and they had to answer to a sizable House caucus in favor of doing away with food stamps altogether. Elections do matter.