Finding Fault With the Farm Bill

By Alan BjergaAlan Bjerga and Cindy HoffmanCindy Hoffman

The so-called farm bill includes something for everyone, from farm subsidies and food stamps to clean-air initiatives. But its sheer, trillion-dollar size leaves critics plenty to find fault with—and those fault lines could derail the bill currently being drafted by the House and Senate agriculture committees.

The coalition that passes the law, which expires on Sept. 30, 2018, cuts across parties and regions. That’s especially crucial in 2018, when rural lawmakers may determine who controls Congress. How they manage the farm bill’s faults may shape who wins next year’s elections—and determine whether America flirts with a reversion to older farm laws that would force markets to adjust to supply-restricting rules in effect when Harry Truman was president.

Of the 12 titles in the farm bill,

four of them account for 99% of total

farm bill spending

80%

Title V—Nutrition

8%

Title XI—Crop Insurance

6%

Title II—Conservation

5%

Title I—Commodities

1%

Title IV—Trade

Title VI—Credit

Title VII—Rural Development

Title VIII—Research, Extension and Related Matters

Title IX—Forestry

Title X—Horticulture

Title XI—Crop Insurance

Title XII—Miscellaneous

Of the 12 titles in the farm bill, four of them account for 99%

of total farm bill spending

5%

I

II

IV

V

VI

VII

VIII

IX

X

XI

XII

Commodities

Conservation

Trade

Nutrition

Credit

Rural Development

Research, Extension and Related Matters

Forestry

Horticulture

Crop Insurance

Miscellaneous

6%

80%

1%

8%

Of the 12 titles in the farm bill, four of them account for 99%

of total farm bill spending

5%

I

II

IV

V

VI

VII

VIII

IX

X

XI

XII

Commodities

Conservation

Trade

Nutrition

Credit

Rural Development

Research, Extension and Related Matters

Forestry

Horticulture

Crop Insurance

Miscellaneous

6%

80%

1%

8%

Of the 12 titles in the farm bill, four of them account for 99% of total farm bill spending

5%

6%

80%

8%

I

Commodities

II

Conservation

III

Trade

IV

Nutrition

V

Credit

VI

Rural Development

VII

Research, Extension

And Related Matters

VIII

Forestry

IX

Energy

X

Horticulture

XII

Miscellaneous

XI

Crop Insurance

1%

of total

funding

That’s happened before, and Congress always patches it with extensions of current law—but the lack of any agreement would show Trump voters in rural districts that once again, Washington can’t deliver for them. It could impede progress on small-town scourges ranging from a lack of broadband access to opioid addiction. And it would be another sign of American political dysfunction.

As goes the farm bill, so goes cohesion in American politics. This could be the year it falls apart.

Fault Line #1
Nutrition Advocates vs. Welfare Skeptics
Students eat their lunches at Casey Middle School in Boulder, Colorado
Photographer: MORGAN RACHEL LEVY/NYT/REDUX

The key to passing the farm bill is the urban-rural coalition of farm-state Republicans (who back farm subsidies) and urban Democrats (who protect the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, aka food stamps).

But rural Republican support is no longer automatic, as small-town social conservatives take aim at food stamps. House Freedom Caucus members have backed deep cuts to the program in budget resolutions: Work requirements and other means of tightening the program, all billed as ways to ensure that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program aid is targeted to the most deserving, will divide GOP support.

SNAP average participation for fiscal years 2006-16

Millions of people

50M

25

0

’06

’08

’10

’12

’14

’16

SNAP total cost for fiscal years 2006-16

$85B

Billions of dollars

55

25

’08

’10

’12

’14

’06

’16

SNAP average participation for fiscal years 2006-16

Millions of people

50M

25

0

’06

’08

’10

’12

’14

’16

SNAP total cost for fiscal years 2006-16

Billions of dollars

$85B

55

25

’06

’08

’10

’12

’14

’16

SNAP average participation for fiscal years 2006-16

Millions of people

50M

25

0

2006

2008

2010

2012

2014

2016

SNAP total cost for fiscal years 2006-16

Billions of dollars

$85B

55

25

2006

2008

2010

2012

2014

2016

Some Democrats are more absolutist on food stamps than others. Pragmatists, including the ranking Democrats of both the House and Senate agriculture committees, will stomach some changes to the rules to get a bill through. More strident advocates such as Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts resist any reductions. The division weakens the Democrats’ united front.

Coalitions form across party lines while divisions arise within SNAP advocates

Rural

Republicans

House Freedom Caucus

Farm

state Republicans

Food

Stamp community

Anti-regulatory food corporations

Nutritionists

Urban

Democrats

Absolutists

Pragmatists

Coalitions form across party lines while divisions arise within SNAP advocates

Rural

Urban

Food

Stamp

community

Republicans

Democrats

House Freedom Caucus

Farm state Republicans

Absolutists

Pragmatists

Anti-regulatory food corporations

Nutritionists

Coalitions form across party lines while divisions arise within SNAP advocates

Rural

Urban

Food Stamp community

Democrats

Republicans

Farm state Republicans

House Freedom Caucus

Absolutists

Pragmatists

Anti-regulatory food corporations

Nutritionists

Absolutists could vote no with members of the Freedom Caucus

Pragmatic Democrats could align with farm state Republicans

Coalitions form across party lines while divisions appear within SNAP advocates

Rural

Urban

Food Stamp community

Republicans

Democrats

House Freedom Caucus

Farm state Republicans

Anti-regulatory food corporations

Nutritionists

Absolutists

Pragmatists

Absolutists could vote no with members of the Freedom Caucus

Pragmatic Democrats could align with farm state Republicans

The food stamp community itself has divisions. Dietary restrictions in food stamps are supported by many nutritionists as a way to encourage better eating. But the corporate muscle supporting SNAP—the big grocers such as Kroger Co.—don't want the rules, which complicate business and could cut into sales.

Fault Line #2
Environmentalists vs. Deregulators
A CRP field (right) in Hanson County, South Dakota
Photographer: Matt Gade/The Daily Republic

The last farm bill passed in early 2014 after farmers experienced record profits and high crop prices. Prices have plunged since then. That’s made funding for such environmental favorites as the Conservation Reserve Program, which idles erodible lands in return for a fixed payment, attractive. The initiatives channel money to famers who adopt sustainable practices, and in some cases pays them not to plant crops. But money for clean air and water comes with government strings attached, which farmers historically fight.

Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) enrollment by fiscal year, in millions of acres

2014 farm bill capped enrollment at 24 million acres

Enrollment began in March 1986

Enrollment peak of 36.8 million acres

40M

30

20

10

0

1986

2016

Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) enrollment by fiscal year, in millions of acres

Enrollment began in March 1986 after CRP was authorized by the 1985 farm bill

Enrollment reached a peak of 36.8 million acres

2014 farm bill capped enrollment at 24 million acres

40M

30

20

10

0

1986

2016

Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) enrollment by fiscal year, in millions of acres

Enrollment reached a peak of 36.8 million acres

Enrollment began in March 1986 after CRP was authorized by the 1985 farm bill

2014 farm bill capped enrollment at 24 million acres

2008 farm bill capped enrollment at 32 million acres

40M

30

20

10

0

’86

’90

’95

’00

’05

’10

’15

’16

Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) enrollment by fiscal year, in millions of acres

Enrollment began in March of 1986 after CRP

is authorized by the 1985 farm bill

Enrollment reached a peak of 36.8 million acres

The 2008 farm bill capped enrollment at 32 million acres

The 2014 farm bill capped enrollment at 24 million acres by FY 2018

40M

30

20

10

0

’86

’90

’95

’00

’05

’10

’15

’16

Environmental issues divide the farm groups that provide muscle for efforts to pass the bill, as lobbies that support expanded farm payments argue over how much regulation to accept in return. More Republican-leaning organizations such as the American Farm Bureau Federation will push for as little government oversight as possible, while more Democratic-leaning groups like the National Farmers Union are more open to it.

But farmers will unite in wanting more ways to make money. Wheat farmers, for example, have struggled to profit as production costs have risen, and they may find conservation programs that pay farmers to idle land more attractive than raising a crop.

Conservation Reserve Program

Per-acre payment

Per-acre profit for wheat

’09

’10

’11

’12

’13

’14

’15

’16

$100

50

0

−50

−100

Conservation Reserve Program

Per-acre payment

Per-acre profit for wheat

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

$100

50

0

−50

−100

Conservation Reserve Program

Per-acre payment

Per-acre profit for wheat

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

$100

50

0

−50

−100

But while environmental groups may get more acreage set aside for conservation, they may have to give on other fronts, such as rules that tie crop-insurance payments to conservation practices. A key arbiter: Outdoors groups like Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited, which want to preserve habitat. They have a big say in how environmentally friendly the farm bill will become.

Fault Line #3
Subsidy “Agvocates” vs. Budget Hawks
Aerial View Of Wheat Harvest, Jamestown, North Dakota
Photographer: Richard Hamilton Smith/Gallery Stock

The Budget Hawks overlap with the Welfare Skeptics but aren't exactly the same. Budget Hawks are less worried about welfare dependency than they are about saving money. The Agvocates—farm and rural lobbyists who boost agriculture spending, even if they’re otherwise fiscal conservatives—are the rural part of the urban-rural coalition. They represent the commodity groups that fight over how the bill will allocate money to corn, soybeans, and other crops. They tend to be fiscal conservatives, too, though not when it comes to farmers.

Before the Agvocates can do battle, they need to agree on what they want farm subsidies to look like. That could be difficult this time around. Thanks to chronic budget deficits, the money isn’t there to expand programs.

Net farm income

In billions, 2013 through 8/30/2017

$130B

Farm income

in 2017 may rise

for the first time

in four years. With

gradual increases

expected, farm

payments may

stabilize

90

50

2015

2016

2013

2017

(estimated)

2014

Projected Farm Subsidy Spending And Crop-Insurance Payments

In billions, 2013 through 2017

Actual

2016

 

$7.4B

 

$4.2B

Projected

2017

 

8.6

 

3.5

Total

2017-27

 

$70.4B

Farm subsidy

spending

Crop insurance

spending

Net farm income

In billions, 2013 through 8/30/2017

$130B

Farm income

in 2017 may rise

for the first time

in four years. With

gradual increases

expected, farm

payments may

stabilize

90

50

2015

2016

2013

2017 (estimated)

2014

Projected Farm Subsidy Spending

And Crop-Insurance Payments

In billions, 2013 through 2017

Projected

Total

2017-27

 

$70.4B

Actual

2016

 

$7.4B

 

$4.2B

’20

 

4.8

 

7.5

’22

 

5.4

 

8.0

’25

 

6.3

 

7.9

’27

 

5.9

 

8.0

’21

 

6.7

 

7.8

’23

 

5.5

 

8.0

’24

 

5.8

 

7.9

’19

 

6.4

 

7.2

’18

 

8.5

 

7.1

’26

 

6.3

 

8.0

’17

 

8.6

 

3.5

Farm subsidy

spending

Crop insurance

spending

Net farm income

In billions, 2013 through 8/30/2017

$130B

Farm income

in 2017 may rise

for the first time

in four years. With

gradual increases

expected, farm

payments may

stabilize

90

50

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017 (estimated)

Projected Farm Subsidy Spending + Crop-Insurance Payments

In billions, 2013 through 2017

Projected

Total

2017-27

 

$70.4B

Actual

2016

 

$7.4B

 

$4.2B

 

2027

 

5.92

 

8.05

2021

 

6.70

 

7.85

2023

 

5.52

 

7.96

2024

 

5.83

 

7.89

2020

 

4.84

 

7.50

2022

 

5.44

 

7.97

2025

 

6.28

 

7.89

2026

 

6.29

 

8.00

2018

 

8.48

 

7.08

2017

 

8.64

 

3.47

2019

 

6.45

 

7.20

Farm subsidy

spending

Crop insurance

spending

Net farm income

In billions, 2013 through 8/30/2017

Farm income

in 2017 may rise for

the first time in four

years. With gradual

increases expected,

farm payments

may stabilize

$130B

90

50

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017(estimated)

Projected Farm Subsidy Spending + Crop-Insurance Payments

In billions, 2013 through 2017

Projected

Actual

2016

 

$7.43B

 

$4.16B

 

Total

2017-27

 

$70.40B

2017

 

8.64

 

3.47

2018

 

8.48

 

7.08

2019

 

6.45

 

7.20

2020

 

4.84

 

7.50

2021

 

6.70

 

7.85

2022

 

5.44

 

7.97

2023

 

5.52

 

7.96

2024

 

5.83

 

7.89

2025

 

6.28

 

7.91

2026

 

6.29

 

8.00

2027

 

5.92

 

8.05

Farm subsidy

spending

Crop insurance

spending

Dairy producers and cotton growers both feel they were shortchanged in the last farm bill, while corn, soybean, and wheat farmers are largely happy with current programs. More money for cotton and dairy could mean less for everyone else. But without happiness in all parts of the commodity world, any deal on the farm bill could die before it even gets through the Agriculture Committee.