By J. Burton Eller

One of the few items of business Congress might actually get done in this nasty election year is the reauthorization of the farm bill.  Whether you’re a Democrat or Republican or conservative or liberal, whether you represent urban, suburban, rich, poor, or rural areas, or whether you’ve ever even been on a farm, this farm legislation gets your attention.

Regardless of where you’re from or who your constituency is, as a Member of Congress you likely have a stake in the farm bill. Really?  Why would anyone but farmers care about a farm bill?  Well, that’s because there’s not much farm left in the farm bill.  The debate on Capitol Hill will be a far cry from your grandfather’s depression-era legislation.

Cities, county and state governments, school districts, wildlife enthusiasts, economists, conservationists, welfare agencies, hunters, fishermen, world markets, hunger relief agencies, and of course farmers, will follow the farm bill debate closely.

Legislation known as the “Farm Bill” has passed Congress every few years since the Dust Bowl years of the Great Depression in the early 1930’s.  The original intent was two-pronged,  1) to keep Americans on the farm and in rural areas rather than flocking into the cities where long “soup lines” already existed and,  2) to produce enough food to feed a poor and struggling society.  There were guaranteed market prices for corn, cotton, wheat and milk.  Low interest, long term real estate “land bank” loans were guaranteed by the  federal  government to put distressed farms back into production.

During World II, high commodity price supports were implemented to feed and clothe a nation at war. These worked. But by the late 1940’s, public policy shifted support rates to lower levels.  Despite lower prices, commodity stocks continued to build due to war-driven technology advances and rapid yield increases.  By the 1960’s, acreage control programs evolved for corn, wheat and cotton.  Large surpluses emerged again by the early 1980’s due to slower economic growth, large crops around the world, and the fact that the U.S. had raised support prices again in the 1970’s.  Once again, in the Food Security Act of 1985 (Farm Bill), Congress chose to reduce price supports and allow acreage set-asides (idle acres).

Over the next 25 years, Congress struggled with the high cost of farm commodity support programs, forcing U.S. farm policy toward more program flexibility and greater market orientation.  The addition and growth of other public assistance programs to farm bills like the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), food stamps, child food assistance and WIC (Women, Infants and Children) feeding programs caused the price tags of ensuing farm bills to skyrocket.  According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), funds authorized by the 2008 farm bill have gone to food assistance (67%), commodities (15%), conservation (9%), and crop insurance (8%).

Fast forward to 2012.  The current farm bill provisions expire in a few months.  Our national debt is mind boggling and frankly quite scary.  The Senate and House Agriculture Committees have offered up $23 billion in new farm bill savings in response to the Budget Control Act of 2011.  The President’s budget calls for a $32 billion reduction and the House Budget Committee is eying cuts of about $33 billion.

Tough choices are ahead.

Expenditures for USDA’s 15 food and nutrition assistance programs account for over two thirds of USDA’s annual budget.  There are 46 million Americans receiving food assistance compared to 17 million in 2001.  Does Congress dare expand assistance spending in such a dire deficit climate?  Cities have become extremely dependent on these USDA’s food programs.   

Farm gate commodity prices are at all-time highs caused in part by the fear of food shortages around the world.  But when prices fall or disaster strikes, what kind of commodity price safety net needs to be in place to assure U.S. food security for the American public?  A public-private crop insurance partnership seems to have the most votes going into farm bill negotiations.  How can the farm bill conservation programs be consolidated (23 down to 13) to significantly reduce costs but retain the soil, water and wildlife gains achieved the last 25 years?   How does Congress provide food assistance to those truly in need with reduced funding and accusations of waste, fraud and abuse in these programs?

Americans have always been blessed with abundant, safe, wholesome and affordable food.  Unlike Europe and Asia, we’ve never been forced to make food security our top priority.  As the world’s population and the demand for food expands dramatically over the next several decades, our priorities could change.  And if they do, will the policies put into place in 2012 hasten or prevent a possible food crisis?  Therefore, anyone who eats or supplies our food needs to pay attention.

Amid a struggling economy, high unemployment, a monstrous federal deficit and record high commodity prices, it won’t be fun finding dollars on Capitol Hill during the upcoming farm bill debate!  But you can bet lots of folks will follow the farm bill deliberations with keen interest.

About the Author:   J. Burton Eller is a strategic counselor to the agricultural community, representing both corporate and trade association groups in their legislative and regulatory initiatives. A family farm owner, he’s served as Deputy Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at USDA, Director of the Farm Service Agency, and most recently as Senior Vice President for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.


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