Federal farm bill’s scope is much broader than farms

The details of the 2012 farm bill are being ironed out in Congress now, as much of the current law in the 2008 farm bill expires in 2012.

While the farm bill does include commodity program support, most of the funds from the bill are allocated to nutrition and food assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which replaced food stamps.

Historically, the farm bill is renewed every five years and governs federal farm and food policy. The 2008 Farm Bill contains 15 titles covering support for commodity crops, horticulture and livestock, conservation, nutrition, trade and food aid, agricultural research, farm credit, rural development, energy, forestry and other related programs.

In 2010 the Congressional Budget Office estimated annual expenditures of $6.4 billion for commodity programs and $63 billion for SNAP and other nutrition programs over the five-year life of the current farm bill.

Only 1 percent of the 2008 bill covers disaster assistance; 8 percent covers crop insurance; and less than 4 percent covers rural development, research, forestry, energy, horticulture/organic and livestock programs.

“Obviously a very large percentage of the farm bill funds nutrition programs when compared to expenditures on commodity title programs,” said Spencer Neale, Virginia Farm Bureau Federation senior assistant director of commodity marketing. “In fact, well less than 1 percent of the overall federal budget goes into supporting agriculture, and in a time when less than 2 million farmers are providing food and fiber to more than 300 million people, it seems one could argue that is a worthy expenditure of federal dollars.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is in charge of all of those programs, and that is why they are all covered by the farm bill, Neale said.

“While we all understand the critical nature of food assistance programs, the production sector that supplies food for these programs is just as critical when debating new farm bill spending allocations, not only for the commodity title, but other agriculture-related provisions as well, such as conservation and rural development.”

Agriculture, he noted, is subject to weather extremes and market volatility “probably more than any other industry, so something needs to be in place—whether it is direct payments or increased crop insurance—to help ensure that there’s a consistent food supply in the United States and worldwide.”

The first farm bill was adopted during the Great Depression and was implemented to ensure a stable and reliable food production system, largely in response to the Dust Bowl.

Neale said that while many farmers do not directly participate in or receive funding assistance from farm bill-related programs, the stability and predictability that five-year farm bills offer to the overall agriculture sector is critical.

Many in Congress have historically defended farm support programs as a means to ensure that the United States has continued access to abundant and affordable domestically produced food.

“If you want to look at it that way, food production is a national security issue,” Neale said. “That being said, whatever happens in the next farm bill, I think we’ll see that it is very different from those of past years.”

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