Keeping the Process of a New Farm Bill in Perspective

May 5, 2010 09:20 AM

Lawmakers are once again following the road map of gathering input for the next version of U.S. farm law with hopes of arriving at that destination in 2012 so the new bill is in place when the 2008 farm bill expires.

The House Ag Committee is taking the lead so far, but that should surprise no one. House Ag Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) signaled his focus was turning to the next U.S. farm bill and he has gotten the process rolling by first hearing from USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. The USDA chief offered up a view of U.S. agriculture that many found rather surprising -- he painted a picture of rural America that focused on nonmetro vs. metro areas of the country, noting that nonmetro areas have an older population, more unemployment and less education compared to metro areas.

But the panel is getting some "ground truth" on that front via a series of farm bill field hearings held around the country. This is similar to the pattern followed in the process that led up to what was originally supposed to have been the 2007 farm bill. But that didn't reach its destination until 2008.

And what the panel is hearing so far is not a call for a lot of change in U.S. farm law. But that, again, is not surprising. Typically, the focus is on keeping what you've got intact, not necessarily stretching into some new frontier on farm policy. And given the budget climate, it could be little more than a "negotiating" strategy -- ask for the ultimate, knowing you won't get it.

With the swelling U.S. debt and budget deficit, it's an easy call to say that farm programs won't stay the same. They all but can't. The budget pressures are broad enough that many programs -- not just agriculture -- will see budget-related reductions. Again, that should come as no surprise.

And as if right on cue, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has released its annual update on farm subsidy payments. The opening sentence of their press release stages the report as showing where government spending has gone awry in their view: "In a time of ballooning federal budget deficits, robust farm income and increasing populist anger over government spending and intervention in the private sector, it would seem prudent to trim wasteful federal farm subsidy programs."

They tout that "from 1995-2009 the largest and wealthiest top 10 percent of farm program recipients received 74% of all farm subsidies with an average total payment over 15 years of $445,127 per recipient -- hardly a safety net for small struggling farmers." And they dole out criticism of the 2008 farm bill, noting " the top 10 percent of recipients still harvested 61 percent of farm subsidies in 2009."

They counter that while these commodity program payments "continue unabated, more pressing priorities like providing healthy school lunches and funding programs that help farmers prevent pesticides and other contaminants from getting into drinking water and protect wildlife habitat go unaddressed." But they fail to point out that dollars spent on traditional commodity programs amount to far less than 30% of USDA's budget and that nearly three-quarters of the dollars spent by USDA are on federal food and feeding programs. The picture painted by EWG almost makes it sound like those figures are reversed!

EWG has also taken aim at the crop insurance program. They point out that $5.4 billion was spent in 2009 to cut the premium cost to farmers and another $1.6 billion paid out to private insurance companies. While railing against the crop insurance program and the subsidies paid out to make it more affordable for farmers, they don't mention that the program is another form of a safety net for producers.

As House Ag Committee Chairman Peterson correctly said in announcing his panel's work on the U.S. farm bill -- everything is on the table. It should be. He admits budget will be a factor, but says he'll wait to really incorporate that in his plans until the rubber is ready to meet the legislative road. Until then, they're following a road map that will take them through a diverse area of this country. And if you're near one the hearing locations that have been announced to date, go. Express your views. It's your chance to help lawmakers make the correct turns so that they arrive at a destination of a farm bill that works for U.S. agriculture.

Here's a list of the field hearings scheduled as of today to "review U.S. agriculture policy in advance of the 2012 farm bill:"

  • Friday, May 14 - 1:30 p.m. EDT, National Archives, Southeast Region, Morrow, GA, Full Committee on Agriculture
  • Saturday, May 15 - 1:00 p.m. CDT, Cattlemen's Park, Pike County Cattlemen's Association, Troy, AL, Full Committee on Agriculture
  • Monday, May 17 - 9:00 a.m. CDT, Texas Tech Museum, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, TX, Full Committee on Agriculture
  • Tuesday, May 18 - 8:00 a.m. CDT, 2nd Floor Theater, Edith Mortenson Center, Augustana College, Sioux Falls, SD, Full Committee on Agriculture


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