Corporate Power | November 6, 2011

Farm Bill Study Guide

It’s Farm Bill time again. More than just a piece of legislation, the Farm Bill affects everyone who eats, sells, buys or grows food. At its origin, it was designed to make sure that everyone had enough to eat, farmers earned a living, and our soil and water stayed healthy. Learn more about what’s in the bill today and you might be surprised!

What is it?

The Farm Bill is an omnibus legislation (it deals with many subjects and programs) that Congress writes, debates and passes every 5 to 7 years. Once passed, the Farm Bill moves into appropriations (a process that determines how much money each Farm Bill program receives). This happens every year until a new Farm Bill is written.

What is the history of the Farm Bill?

The first Farm Bill, the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 (each one has a name), was created to address rock bottom prices (corn prices actually hit $0), national hunger, soil erosion, lack of credit and unfair export practices. Since then, there have been 15 Farm Bills which have, in one way or another, addressed these issues. Unfortunately, a number of the original programs, which were designed to ensure that there was healthy food for all and fair prices for farmers, have been stripped away or replaced with programs that benefit corporate interests over the interests of farmers and eaters.

What’s in it?

The bill itself is organized by “Title.” The 2008 Farm Bill, called the Food, Conservation and Energy Act, had 15 titles covering a variety of programs. New titles are added as new scopes of work become crucial to the food and farm economy. This was the case in 2002 when the new Energy Title was added to the bill, and in 2008 when the Horticulture and Organic AgTitle and Livestock Title were added, among others.

One surprising fact about the Farm Bill is that Title IV, Nutrition, generally receives the highest level of funding at 68% of total spending in the 2008 Farm Bill. These programs include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as Food Stamps), other emergency food assistance programs, and initiatives that promote local foods, like the Senior Farmers’ Market Promotion Program.

Title I is perhaps the most often mentioned and least understood: Commodities. Subsidies to farms growing commodity program crops (corn, cotton, wheat, rice and soybeans are heavily favored) are paid through this program and it is the second highest funded title in the farm bill at approximately 12% of total spending.

Some sustainable agriculture victories can be found in Title II: Conservation. Over the past 25 years, several conservation programs were developed under this title to reward farmers for sustainable farming practices that seek to protect the soil and water. These programs, however, are limited in scope and funding, and especially at risk of cuts in the 2012 Farm Bill.

The other titles are: Trade, Credit, Rural Development, Research, Forestry, Crop Insurance, Commodity Futures, Trade & Taxes and of course the Miscellaneous category that catches important details like new provisions that target socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, enhancing outreach, access and reporting related to USDA program participation. As you can see, with such a broad range of issues covered, from soil quality to rural job development, Farm Bill programs reach far and wide.

How can I learn more?

Farm Aid partner National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) works on Capitol Hill representing farmers from all over the country and is a go-to organization for up-to-date info on what’s happening in agriculture policy. Or, ask us! Farm Aid partners with many organizations across the country that are working towards policies that will create strong food systems and thriving farm communities, with healthy food for all.

What can I do?

The ball is already rolling on the 2012 Farm Bill but it is never too late to contact your Representative or Senators and tell them that you want a farm bill that rewards farmers for taking care of the land, that puts fresh, healthy food in our schools and neighborhoods, that helps young people get into farming and that restores fairness in the marketplace. Let them know that you care about the Farm Bill — because it affects all of us, every single day.

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