Still No Farm Bill (And Why We Care)

‘Tis the season to focus on our plentiful, affordable food, our full stomachs, and our thankfulness that one leads to the other. As we lick the remaining Thanksgiving turkey gravy (or ham) from our lips, turn our attention to what’s left of the pumpkin pie and focus on what needs attention on our Christmas lists, I think we must admit that the world looks like a better place when we aren’t hungry. So how in the world did we get to this point of growing disconnect about the fact that food comes from farmers?  And how can our country not understand that supporting a comprehensive farm bill  also helps support that plentiful and affordable food supply? Let’s ponder what we all actually gain from a farm bill.

Congress has two weeks remaining before it recesses for the year. The farm bill is one of the priorities Congress faces as the clock winds down. A recent White House Rural Council report outlined that all Americans can benefit from a new farm bill. The report details economic benefits, rural infrastructure support and development, and conservation efforts, among other positive outcomes that are impacted by the farm bill.

If economic benefits capture your attention, consider that the farm bill helps keep the momentum rolling on the economic growth of the U.S. agricultural economy. The 2013 net farm income, adjusted for inflation, stands at the second-highest level since 1973 at $120 billion. The report says farm asset values are expected to rise 7.1% in 2013 and farm equity is expected to increase by 7.6%. Agricultural exports, efforts that are also supported by farm bill programs, are expected to exceed a record-setting $140 billion in 2013, supporting about one million American jobs. The farm bill authorized USDA’s trade promotion efforts, estimated to generate a return of $35 in economic benefit for every one dollar invested. The programs help U.S. agricultural producer organizations expand commercial exports markets for their goods abroad through support for organizations such as the U.S. Meat Export Federation, for example.

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The farm bill also supports research, education and extension activities, and helps fund competitive grants programs that provide science-based solutions to address major agricultural challenges of national, regional, and multi- state importance. Agricultural research and development generates high payoffs for farmers and the public: research shows that investing in agricultural research and development generates social rates of return of 20-60% annually. The report points out that between 1948 to 2011, U.S. agricultural output grew at an average annual rate of 1.5%, and total farm production more than doubled– with innovation-driven productivity growth accounting for most of this growth.

As we currently pause to appreciate the availability of food to put on our holiday tables, take a moment to reflect on the safety net that a comprehensive farm bill provides to help agricultural producers manage risk. The Farm Bill represents a key opportunity to further reform and improve farm programs, and restore disaster funding for livestock producers. The report contends that Congressional inaction on the Farm Bill means some of the programs that could have helped mitigate the impacts of severe drought conditions in 2012, and more recently during the South Dakota blizzard that caused thousands of cattle deaths this past October, are expired or currently have no funding – particularly safety net programs for livestock producers. Because Congress has not acted to reauthorize the Farm Bill, USDA is unable to assist producers and can only ask producers to keep accurate records for when a Farm Bill reauthorizes the lost programs.

And the bottom line, really, when it comes to farming, is to feed those who are hungry. Though it is currently an area of contention, a comprehensive farm bill will support vulnerable families by protecting food and nutritional assistance programs

The report points out that for the past 40 years, the farm bill has authorized the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), one of our nation's strongest defenses against hunger and poverty. SNAP helps families and seniors put food on the table, while also benefitting farm and rural economies. In 2012, SNAP kept nearly 5 million people, including 2.2 million children, above the poverty line. Program benefits are targeted to those most in need: the vast majority of SNAP participants are children, the elderly, or people with disabilities. Over 91% of SNAP benefits go to households with income below the poverty line, and 55% go to households with income of less than half of the poverty line (about $9,500 for a family of three). Most SNAP recipients who can work do so. Among SNAP households with at least one working-age, non-disabled adult, more than half work – and more than 80% work in the year before or after receiving SNAP.

The independent Congressional Budget Office estimates that every SNAP dollar generates up to $1.80 in economic activity. Every $5 in SNAP benefits generates as much as $9 of economic activity for the over 230,000 retail food outlets – supermarkets, grocers and farmers' markets – that participate in the program

As 2013 winds to a close, efforts continue between the House and Senate Agriculture Committees leaders to try and finalize the farm bill.  Some of the key issues continue to be the commodity title and the level of cuts to the SNAP program. Some experts have said there is a 50/50 chance of the farm bill differences being resolved. We aren’t taking bets, but we will continue to follow this developing situation via our Legislative Preview column and we will provide updates from our Washington, D.C. correspondent, Scott Shearer. In the meantime, we still believe that the farm bill matters.

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