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Trying to understand the farm bill

August 21, 2010

The current farm bill expires on 09-30-2012. The writing of the new bill will begin in early 2011. We have less than a year to tell our legislators what we want the farm bill to be.

The farm bill designs the funding structure for commodity programs, agricultural research, nutritional programs, conservation programs, rural development, and more.

Food stamps, school lunches, and other nutrition programs account for about half of the farm bill spending. Support for commodity crop farmers accounts for another 35%. The rest of the funds are divided among conservation, environment, forestry, renewable energy, research and rural development.

About one quarter of U.S. farmers receive commodity subsidies and out of these, the top 10% receive 75% of all funds. Most payments go to the largest farms because commodities subsidies are paid to the producers of corn, soybeans, wheat, rice and cotton. The top 10 % receive two thirds of the payments. Very little of what is subsidized is actually edible to us humans.

Farmers who grow “specialty crops” or vegetables, fruits, and flowers are currently ineligible for these subsidies.

We need to make sure that the subsidies being legislated are in the interest of our nation’s health.

The farm bill is historically complex.

With roots in the New Deal, Agriculture Acts were once designed to help the struggling farmer by imposing restrictions on the amount of land that could be farmed to balance surplus and maintain stable prices. Trade was booming in the 1970s and farmers were encouraged to produce as much as possible, intending the surplus for export. During the 1980s, the global price of commodities collapsed and U.S. farmers dependent upon exporting were hit hard.

Jump to 1996 and the “Freedom to Farm Act.”– this marked the end of policy meant to control supply and stabilize prices. In 1997, Congress authorized the use of emergency payments to farmers and in 2002, Congress voted to make these emergency payments permanent.

Daniel Imhoff, a researcher who has spent nearly twenty years concentrating on issues related to farming, insists, “we must put an end to commodity subsidy programs that simply encourage over production and insurance of cheap ingredients for industrial foods. What we subsidize should contribute to an all around healthier food system.”

The House Agriculture Committee has been holding public hearings on the 2012 Farm Bill this summer. To keep up to date on the farm bill and other agricultural news, check out FarmPolicy.com, an Internet based newsletter that provides a daily summary of news relating to U.S. farm policy. And while you’re at it, read Michael Pollan’s You Are What You Grow, an article written the last time we were faced with the construction of our current farm bill. As Pollan states, this could be “the year when the farm bill became a food bill, and the eaters at last had their say.”

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