Piecing Together the Farm Bill Puzzle

With diverse agriculture interests competing, and responsibilities for nutrition, conservation, and more, lawmakers gathering testimony from producers, most recently in Galesburg, Illinois.

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Members of the House Agriculture Committee have a complex job on their hands as they work to assemble a new Farm Bill. They want to come up with a workable plan for the country’s diverse agriculture AND they must craft a deal that accounts for $23 billion in spending cuts that the House promised last fall as part of wider federal budget reductions.

In its public effort to gather information, the committee held the second of four field hearings March 23 on the campus of Carl Sandburg Community College in Galesburg, Illinois. About 250 people attended the hearing, which included testimony from ten farmers who live in Illinois, Minnesota, Ohio, and Indiana, and Iowa.

Committee Chair Frank Lucas (R-Oklahoma) stated that one of the committee’s goals is to put together a bill that works for all regions and all commodities. The farmers’ testimonies disclosed that widely differing perspectives underpin competition among the commodity groups that shape each Farm Bill, as do differing philosophies of farming and markets and approaches to conservation. The farmers represented not only the staple row crops of corn and soybeans that are grown across wide areas of the Midwest, but also beef, pork, canning tomatoes, sorghum, wheat, pumpkins, rice, and specialty crops.

House Agriculture Committee
Committee Chair Frank Lucas (R-Oklahoma) addressed the gathering at Carl Sandburg Community College in Galesburg, IL, March 23, 2012.

The Farm Bill is the product of various federal, state, and local interests and representatives of international commodity sectors. Further, the Farm Bill comprises a number of legal titles (sections), each addressing particular programs that are carried out in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While the number and designation of these sections has varied over time, the current legislation is divided into 15 legal titles, including commodity crops, horticulture and livestock, conservation, nutrition, trade and food aid, agricultural research, farm credit, rural development, energy, forestry, and other related programs. Framers of the 2012 bill face the difficulty of reconciling shifting and possibly conflicting impacts in these different titles on the diverse group of rural and agricultural stakeholders, as well as all food consumers across the country.

Farm crop subsidies, likely to be reduced in the next bill, were a central topic of the hearing, as were crop insurance and conservation. With the possible reduction of subsidies, which have been tied to soil and water conservation practices, committee members are seeking ways to keep conservation in the forefront. Although the government’s role in conservation programs may be debatable both within the committee and among stakeholders, the committee’s leadership seems to recognize that conservation is vital to increase farm productivity as the world population grows.

Nick Adams, (Galesburg) Register-Mail
Illinois has some of the richest farmland in the nation. David Serven, shown with son Perry, grows corn and soybeans in St. Augustine, IL

Part of the Farm Bill discussion is focusing on whether protecting soil and water should be linked to crop insurance. Farmers generally testified that they need subsidies for protection when prices are low and insurance to help manage risk from weather. The crop insurance industry opposes linking conservation with insurance. In any case, all of the farmers wanted simplified processes and flexibility.

Rural development was peripheral to this discussion, which was intended to focus on farm programs. But 75% of Farm Bill spending pays for food and nutrition programs that stimulate demand for agricultural products and help low-income Americans. With poverty levels up because of the prolonged recession and with budget cuts looming, negotiations over the future of agriculture in the country are only part of the complicated equation.

More information on the hearings and testimony by farmers from various locations around the country can be found on the House Agriculture Committee Farm Bill website. Future field hearings are scheduled for State University, Arkansas (March 30), and Dodge City, Kansas (April 20).

Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.


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