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What's the Farm Bill and Why is it Important

Those of us who eat and pay taxes should care about the Farm Bill.


The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, also known as the Farm Bill, was passed in December of 2018, and will expire on September 30. Maybe you’ve heard of the Farm Bill, but don’t really know anything about it. Perhaps you’re wondering why anyone other than farmers should pay attention to this piece of legislation that is renewed every five years.


Congress will put forward a first draft of the 2023 Farm Bill in September when they return from their monthlong break. Submitting your thoughts to your representatives matters, because programs funded by the Farm Bill affect food prices, and the accessibility and availability of healthy food.


This massive bill, made up of 12 titles and expected to be anywhere between $700 billion and $1 trillion, can take months to negotiate. The biggest ticket item is SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), but the bill also covers crop insurance, conservation, and commodities. About one percent of the spending addresses issues such as international trade, rural development, local food systems, beginning farmers, racial equity, research, and forestry.


Farm Aid, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to build a vibrant, family farm-centered system of agriculture in America, provides an overview of the Farm Bill and its history: “The first Farm Bill was drafted in 1933, in the wake of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, to address the needs of America’s farmers at a time when hunger and poverty were widespread in the country.”


After World War II, when the country was facing a booming population, the government responded by subsidizing monocrops like corn and soy. Due to the influence of industry lobbyists, today’s bill is a far cry from the original intention of helping farmers. According to a recent article in Fortune by Gene Baur, the Farm Bill: “is why burgers are artificially cheap and salads cost more than they should…Farm Bill policies have been hijacked, resulting in the demise of family farms, the proliferation of food that makes us sick, and widespread ecological destruction.”

Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

Subsidies for commodity crops form the foundation of our cheap, highly-processed-food diet. While the commodities title (Title I) of the bill accounts for 7.3% of the total funding, the section that addresses specialty crops such as fruits, vegetables, and nuts makes up only 0.23% of the spend in the current bill. Support for these crops is crucial given that local food systems are vital to building food system resiliency and community food security.


The Dairy Industry in particular has reaped the benefits of Title I. According to Baur’s article, the dairy industry “receives government support to produce more cows’ milk than we consume…One 2015 study found an astounding 73% of the U.S. dairy industry’s income came from government programs. Dairy industry interests are so embedded that before his appointment as the USDA Secretary by President Biden, Tom Vilsack was the CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council. The revolving door between USDA leadership and employment for the dairy, meat, and commodity industries is staggering.”


How is it possible that so much of the dairy industry’s income comes from the government? The 2018 Farm Bill provides the Dairy Margin Coverage (DMC) program that pays dairy farmers the difference between the national price of milk and the average cost of feed. Dairy operations have the option to simultaneously participate in the Dairy Revenue Protection (Dairy-RP) program that insures against unexpected declines in the quarterly revenue from milk sales relative to a guaranteed coverage level chosen by the dairy farmer.


The Dairy Industry isn’t the only group that enjoys these protections. The two largest Title I programs, Price Loss Coverage (PLC) and Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC), pay producers when prices and/or yields of covered commodities fall below a certain amount, regardless of their planting decisions. "Covered commodities" for PLC and ARC include wheat, corn, sorghum, barley, oats, seed cotton, long- and medium-grain rice, certain pulses, soybeans/other oilseeds, peanuts, sugar, honey, wool, and mohair.


The small farmers that the Farm Bill was supposed to help are being driven out of business due to the “get big or get out” philosophy. Per Farm Aid’s Farm Bill 101, “Since the 1970s, policies have rewarded or encouraged big farms to get bigger, while under-serving small and midsize farms, diversified operations, and beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers…Additionally, these policies encourage industrial farming practices that erode soil health and leave conventional farms particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events and market shifts.”1


Crop Insurance is another driver of monoculture commodity production in the United States. Charts on the USDA Economic Research Service website show that “In 2021, more than 34 percent of the 1.96 million U.S. family farms received Government payments…These Government payments totaled $14.3 billion based on data from USDA’s Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS).” This research found that 75% of commercial farms (those with $350,000 or more in gross cash farm income (GCFI)) received Government payments. In contrast, intermediate family farms (those with less than $350,000 in GCFI and a principal operator whose primary occupation is farming), only 31% received Government payments. Farm Aid states that the 2023 Farm Bill is an opportunity “to remove barriers in program design and implementation so that small and mid-sized, beginning, specialty crop, and organic farmers can have access to this crucial safety net program.”


Since the last Farm Bill was passed in December of 2018, we’ve experienced a pandemic, increasing climate change-induced extreme weather conditions, supply issues, and economic uncertainty, making crop insurance a major focus for many farmers. Per an article by Emily Baron Cadloff on Modern Farmer’s website: “Groups such as the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) would like to see crop insurance used in a way that can incentivize farmers. It is hoping Congress will consider offering crop insurance discounts to farmers who plant cover crops or use other methods of decreasing their own risk.”


This all brings me back to why we should care. For me, a heart disease survivor, access to healthy food is an issue that I’m passionate about. Did you know that heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, and that 80% of cardiovascular disease is preventable with lifestyle changes? What you eat is one of the most important lifestyle factors in whether you will experience heart disease. However, per the CDC, only roughly 11 percent of U.S. adults eat the recommended number of daily servings of fruits and vegetables.


According to a report from the American Heart Association, “Only half of the recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables is available in the U.S. food supply, whereas red meat and poultry are available at about twice the rate recommend for healthy eating.”


Many see the bill as an opportunity to address climate change. In an open letter to President Biden, the National Latino Farmers and Ranchers Trade Association asks for incentives to help farmers reduce emissions and implement “farming practices and labor policies that make their farms and workers better able to withstand extreme weather.”


What can you do to influence the 2023 Farm Bill?

  • Vote with your fork by supporting local farmers. Shop at farmers’ markets, join a local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), or look for the “I’m a local” designation when purchasing produce from the grocery store.

  • Support organizations like American Farmland Trust by including your name to ask your elected representatives to create a Farm Bill that “builds a more resilient farm and food system while helping to solve the modern challenges facing agricultural producers.”

  • Provide your own comments on the farm bill using this form on the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, & Forestry website, or emailing FarmBill2023@ag.senate.gov.

  • Contact your representative directly to share your thoughts. Use this website to find out who they are and how to reach them.

When reaching out to your representatives or the Senate Committee, write based on what’s important to you.


Maybe you advocate funding programs that improve both access to healthy foods and improve healthy eating behaviors such as:

  • the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentives (FINI) that provides incentives to SNAP beneficiaries for purchasing fruits and vegetables, or

  • the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP) that provides a fresh fruit or vegetable snack to the county’s lowest-income elementary schools, or

  • the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative that aims to combat obesity; improve rural economies; mitigate climate vulnerabilities; train farmers; increase food production and create new sources of energy.

For those who are concerned about the environment, and health of our soil, you might write in support of:

  • the Soil Health and Income Protection Program (Title II) that provides payments for less productive farmland to be taken out of production and planted to a low-cost cover crop, or

  • incentives for the transition to organic farming and practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity, or

  • the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) that rewards farmers for establishing conservation practices on actively farmed land (funding for CSP has been decreased by half in the last two farm bills).

The Farm Bill impacts what food is available and at what price, so it’s worth paying attention to for all of us. We need to shift our systems to focus on producing nourishing foods. That means letting go of outdated ideas, “business-as-usual” attitudes, and profit-first mentality. What’s good for profits may not be good for the health of not only ‘we, the people,’ but also the planet.

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