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Know Your Farmer, Know Your Farm Bill

February 14, 2012

It’s Farm Bill time again. Every five years or so, this giant piece of legislation is renewed to create much of the food, nutrition and agriculture policy and funding in the United States. Now is the unpredictable and lively time when lawmakers, lobbyists, activists, farmers and citizens attempt to cultivate common ground on this omnibus bill (meaning it covers a variety of diverse topics) and steer the course of what we grow and eat as a nation. So if you support a local food system, love your farmers, grow food or care about the environment; this is a good time to make your voice heard in the debate.

The most recent Farm Bill, the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008, remains in effect until the end of 2012. When passed, the 2008 Farm Bill included about $284 billion dollars of mandatory funding for food and agriculture related programs, along with a significant chunk of discretionary funding too. This giant piece of policy is divided into titles, each title highlighting a different focus area. For example, the existing Farm Bill including everything from Energy to Nutrition to Commodities to Conservation to Forestry titles.

Many folks perceive the farm bill to focus on topics like agricultural subsidies for commodity producers. However, subsidy and commodity programs only account for 15% of Farm Bill funding, followed by 9% for conservation programs and 8% for crop insurance. There’s a push to rename it the Food and Farm Bill, and for good reason. More than half of Farm Bill spending, about 67% of mandatory funds, are directed to USDA food and nutrition programs – namely the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), previously known as the Food Stamp Program. That’s a pretty high priority placed on providing supplemental food dollars for those who need it. If you do the math, about 1% of Farm Bill funding falls into a category other than the ones listed above, programs that are incredibly important to small, new or diversified farms across the country like the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Programs, Value-Added Producer Grants and the Farmers’ Market Promotion Program. These smaller programs place priority on supporting producers who grow or process the food we are more likely to eat fresh and lightly processed, like fruits and vegetables.

This is a good time to engage in Farm Bill advocacy (or agvocacy as some folks like to call it), and voice your opinions about what you would like to see in the upcoming Farm Bill. The good news is, you don’t have to start from scratch. Two bills incorporating support for local food systems have already been introduced in Congress. Although these pieces of proposed legislation will never become the Farm Bill, the hope is that they will become incorporated into the Farm Bill as it develops. Keep your eyes peeled for the following two bills, and encourage your legislators to support them.

  • Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act: Introduced by Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME-1) in November of 2011. With the support of 35 original co-sponsors, this proposed legislation promotes producer and consumer aspects of producing and accessing local food, including strengthening the food supply chain.
  • The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act of 2011: Introduced by Representatives Tim Walz (D-MN-1) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE-1) along with Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) in the Senate, this bill aims to support opportunities for new and beginning farmers and food entrepreneurs. This legislation addressed the barriers new farmers face, including access to land, markets and credit.

It can take over a year for the fine folks in Washington to agree on the contents of this behemoth piece of legislation. The process also leads to unexpected alliances between rural and urban representatives who join forces to gain traction for both the production (rural) and consumer (primarily urban) aspects of the Farm Bill. It’s always hard to predict what will happen, but there’s room for all of us to have our say. You can keep up to date and learn more about Farm Bill agvocacy with a focus on sustainability through organizations like:

We’ll also keep you updated on the progress of the Farm Bill, along with the perspectives of farmers who are working to improve our food system, so keep posted. And don’t forget to start to conversation with your legislators so you can make your Farm Bill voice heard too.

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