On the fate of the Farm Bill

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Notes from the news desk. File photo. Notes from the news desk. File photo.

An economics professor I had in college once told my class the Farm Bill was the most important piece of legislation that nobody in America cares about.

Granted, I went to an ag school, so maybe she had a slightly skewed perspective. But she’s got a point. The Farm Bill—these days, officially known as the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act—is huge, and it has the power to shape our lives in a number of ways. The last bill—Congress votes on one every five years—totalled $300 billion.

If they think about the Farm Bill at all, most Americans think of subsidies for Midwest corn and soybeans, and it’s true that about 14 percent of the allocated funds subsidize crops. That’s not an insignificant sum, and how it’s allocated can have a big impact on what’s grown and how much those crops and other food products cost for consumers.

But the bill also dictates agricultural policy across the country, including here in Virginia, and the Senate’s crack at the 2012 version included reforms that could give smaller organic farmers a leg up in an industry dominated—and that’s an understatement—by giant agribusiness corporations. The Senate’s bill would have updated the U.S. crop insurance system, which currently puts organic farmers at a disadvantage, as Priscilla Lin of Environment Virginia explained to us earlier this year.

“Organic farmers are paying higher premiums for their crop-insurance, however, they’re not getting paid the price of their crop,” she said. “A really great amendment that was introduced and passed allows them to receive the price at which their crop is grown,” Lin said. It also would have subsidized the high cost of organic certification.

Small farmers and the organizations that support them weren’t universally happy with the proposed 2012 bill, but they were heartened by the efforts to level the playing field a bit.

But then the bill went the House, where it stalled. And here’s why: More than two-thirds of the Farm Bill has nothing to do with farms. It funds the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—formerly known as food stamps. Spending-phobic Republicans see that as fat to be cut, and the House Agriculture Committee proposed drastic reductions in food assistance for the 2012 legislation. Both sides dug in their heels on the issue this year, and we’re looking at no Farm Bill at all until the next session.

What will Congress’ punt mean? A piece on NPR this week says a delay probably won’t have a massive impact on agriculture right away. Legislators have time to steer the ship back on course. But analysts say starting from scratch in 2013 could very well lead to even deeper cuts for the food stamp program.

And while the sky may not fall for farmers (NPR points out it stalled last time around, too), they’re still left with a big void in place of an important government framework—and a lot of uncertainty about what the future will hold. There’s a sense that the longer we go without a bill, the more chance there is that major across-the-board deficit reductions will be put on the table, and the Farm Bill will bear the brunt of cuts. And even in an industry where uncertainty is a major ingredient in day-to-day life, that doesn’t sit well.

The hangup has made some lose faith in the ability of federal-level agricultural reform. Farms—especially small ones—do need help, Brian Walden of Steadfast Farm in Red Hill told us this summer, “but it looks like they’re not going to get it from the government.”

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