Why did Congress let the Farm Bill expire on Sept. 30? You might suspect this piece of mega-legislation collapsed under its own colossal weight: over 700 pages, with 15 different spending categories totaling $100 billion per year, touching everything from corn subsidies to organics research to food stamps to rural enterprise development.
Indeed, the Farm Bill can seem incomprehensible to anyone who’s not a policy wonk. I am a reluctant wonk. I first became interested in the Farm Bill because of its potential to do something that the free market does not: help landowners restore habitat and protect nature. But I quickly came to understand that the Farm Bill could be a solution to myriad food-related problems. Some of these problems have been hammered into the national consciousness—for instance, the fact that two-thirds of the country’s people are overweight or clinically obese. Other issues addressed in the Farm Bill get less air time: One-sixth of the country relies on food stamps. Our agricultural heartland just suffered its most serious drought in decades, and climate conditions continue to grow more erratic. Farm operators over 65 years of age outnumber those under 35 by 7 to 1. Impending water and fuel shortages are already affecting agriculture.
Admittedly, the Farm Bill has gotten creaky. Born in the midst of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, it was intended to protect our food and farming systems from the fickle forces of the weather, price fluctuations, and the global economy. Loans, price supports, and grain reserves helped family farmers receive fair return for their crops. Conservation incentives rewarded farmers for doing things like idling cropland and maintaining hedgerows that prevented erosion and provided natural habitat for birds and wildlife. Nutrition assistance programs tried to ensure that every American got something to eat.
Eighty years later, all of these seemingly straightforward, reasonable goals have become complicated and controversial. Farm Bill subsidy programs lavish landowners with billions of dollars regardless of whether they grow crops. There are essentially no meaningful limits on how much income a farmer can make and still earn subsidies, or on how much assistance a farmer can receive. Most subsidy dollars go to the country’s largest operations in less than 50 congressional districts. Representatives from these districts have gotten the bill passed every five years or so by cutting a deal with congressional champions of food stamps and nutrition assistance, crucial programs that, as of 2008, account for 80 cents of every Farm Bill dollar spent. Conservation is the odd man out: Environmental programs are first on the chopping block whenever budgets need to be tightened. Mounting pressure to cut federal spending has only made passing this legislative behemoth even less popular.
Yet early this summer, the full Senate passed a version of the Farm Bill that seemed to move food policy, however incrementally, in a positive direction. In a series of last-minute amendments, the Senate made some modest cost cuts to food stamps and conservation incentives but also added stricter income and ownership rules to keep the wealthiest farming operations off the dole. It also preserved some programs crucial to boosting regional food production and sustainable agriculture—like grants to help producers market their goods locally, and programs that help get fruits and vegetables straight from farms to school cafeterias. By rejiggering some unpopular crop subsidies into a new-fangled crop insurance safety net, the Senate appeased agribusinesses. By requiring farmers to agree to conservation guidelines to enroll in the insurance program, it pleased conservationists.
The House Agriculture Committee passed its own draft of the Farm Bill in July—but the House version was far less publicly minded than the Senate version. It continued to reward commodity producers—growers of corn, wheat, rice, soybeans, and cotton—who are already earning record income. It quadrupled the Senate’s proposed food stamp budget reduction. It hacked away at important land conservation incentive programs, which can’t even keep up with demand from farmers who are eager to enroll. Riders would have done away with some of the EPA’s regulatory powers and further monopolized the meatpacking industry.
It looked like the Senate's and the House’s agriculture committees were headed for an ugly clash—but instead, the House completely dropped the ball. House leaders refused to schedule time to debate and vote on the Farm Bill draft that its Agriculture Committee passed in July. After more than two months of stalling, the 2008 Farm Bill expired.
So, what happens now? The sudden expiration of a major piece of legislation sounds like it should have major consequences, but so far the fallout has been mostly limited to the dairy industry. When the Farm Bill expired on Sept. 30, the Milk Income Loss Contract program, which compensates dairy farmers when milk prices drop in relation to feed costs, ended abruptly. Feed grain costs are shooting up, pushed up by drought, the use of corn and soy for biofuel production, and overseas demand. Many operators are selling cattle to survive. With fewer cows producing, the cost of milk and dairy products could soon spike. Some independent dairy farmers most certainly will go under, furthering concentration of ownership in a sector already dominated by mega-dairies. And if Congress does nothing by the end of 2012, things could get really strange. U.S. dairy policy will revert to a 1949 law under which the government hoards milk at astronomical subsidy rates. Milk prices could double almost overnight as a result.
Even with the threat of skyrocketing milk prices, Congress doesn’t appear poised to take any particular action. There are several possible next steps, and the odds are split more or less evenly among them: Congress might negotiate a new Farm Bill during the lame duck session at the end of this year. Alternately, an extension of the 2008 Farm Bill could be passed to help farmers plan for the 2013 planting season and continue conservation and other programs whose funding has been suspended. Or, a version of a Farm Bill could be attached to an upcoming budget bill. Or the bill could stay in limbo indefinitely.
But what should happen now? If Congress were to draft a serious piece of legislation aimed at benefiting farmers, the environment, and consumers (including the poor), what would it look like? The Senate’s version certainly had some of the right ideas, but it didn’t go far enough in at least two important ways.