Four things to know about the Farm Bill

How the 2018 Farm Bill impacts your table, your community, and our country.

Chances are, you’ve seen a bit of news about the Farm Bill lately. There’s also a good chance that, especially if you’re not a farmer, you passed it off as another distant Washington fight between Republicans, Democrats, and their respective special interest groups.

And while you’re not necessarily wrong on that account, you might be surprised at how much this piece of legislation actually touches your day-to-day life, and why it’s important to educate yourself and stay plugged in. The Farm Bill impacts everything from the price of groceries, to the variety and the origin of the food you eat, and the economic health of your community.

For example, did you know that pork and beef are exempt from Country of Origin Labeling requirements? Yes, the Farm Bill dictates whether or not you know where the food you feed your children comes from, among so many other things.

With Congress currently debating the next U.S. Farm Bill, now’s a good time to bone up on the four things you, as a voter and a consumer, need to know:

  • What is the Farm Bill?
  • Why is it important to you?
  • What can we do to improve it?
  • How can you get involved?

What’s a Farm Bill?

tractorAt its most abstract, the modern Farm Bill is a package of government programs — everything from crop insurance to food supply infrastructure development and assistance for needy families, to name a few. Funding is packaged often as grants that usually come with requirements aimed at promoting certain activities like crop rotation, grazing habits, and soil and water conservation. It’s through this mechanism that the federal government can help direct the face of U.S. agriculture.

The bill itself is a huge piece of legislation — the 2014 version, for example, topped out at 959 pages long and cost $956 billion over 10 years. A product of the Great Depression and New Deal, farm bills were first designed as a means to manage excess crop supply, ensure food supply safety, and protect markets for farmers reeling from the 1-2 punch of the Dust Bowl and the Depression.

The original Farm Bill also included a nutrition program, similar to what we now recognize as food stamps. In 1938, it gained some permanence, as Congress required that Washington update food and ag policy with a fresh farm bill every five years.

What began, however, as a means for lifting up struggling rural communities and the agricultural fields weaved around them, has since morphed into a tool large industrial agribusiness uses to increase its control of markets and share of the consumer’s food dollar, often to the detriment of small, family farms.

Over the past four decades, the agricultural input market has enjoyed staggering consolidation amongst its largest companies. For example, the 2016 merger of Bayer and Monsanto leaves three companies in control of nearly 70 percent of the global pesticide market, and 80 percent of the U.S. corn-seed market.

In the livestock sector, some four companies control 84 percent of the cattle processing, a serious blow to ranchers seeking options to market their finished cows for a competitive price.

We’ve seen a similar dynamic play out among U.S. farms, where production continues to move toward larger operations. In 1991, large farms (defined as enterprises doing $1 million or more annually in sales) accounted for 31 percent of U.S. agricultural production. By 2015, that figure reached 51 percent. Crop diversity has taken a hit as well.

Today, more and more operations either specialize in one crop, or grow merely two or three crops — when the same fields used to grow five or six different things. Livestock production has shifted as well. Instead of ranchers growing their own feed, on average, they buy it now.

Why is it important to me?

food displayAccording to the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, farm wages and crop income have stagnated — the average farmer operates at a net loss, per the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And, the next generation of would-be farmers and ranchers have found it increasingly difficult to get a foothold.

Additionally, the monopolization of some agricultural production allows processors to dictate low prices to growers, while setting higher prices to consumers. In a sense, the rancher makes less than she could off her herd, and the grocery shopper pays more than he should at the register — all while the middle man pockets more of the difference.

Given the cultural prominence farmers carved out for themselves in the American political landscape, U.S. ranchers and farmers seem ripe for a frantic bipartisan effort to revitalize their industry and set things straight.

But, that’s not happening. Nope, last Friday the 2018 House Farm Bill was defeated by a coalition of House Democrats opposed to cutting supplemental nutrition for needy families, and the House Republican “Freedom Caucus” trying to leverage votes on unrelated immigration bills.

The bill did nothing to address the negative trends in the ag industry, trends that are devouring rural America. If anything, it encourages them by further subsidizing the biggest players.

So what do these trends mean for you, specifically?

  1. When you buy groceries you’re probably giving more of your money to corporate middlemen than you’d expect.
  2. If you’re a farmer or a rancher, you’re receiving considerably less than the at-market price of your product, and are more and more at the mercy of monopolistic processors that hold almost all the bargaining power.
  3. And, if you’re a resident of a rural community, you’ve watched good, stable food infrastructure jobs leave your town, you’ve seen mom-and-pop businesses shut their doors for good, chased out of town by chain retailers and grocers. In a sense, these negative trends are killing off entire towns.

We can correct this, however, by enacting smart, fair ag policy that strengthens the patchwork of family farms which blanket our country. In order to do that, though, Congress must put people before profits. Here’s how:

How can we do better?

We feel that an ideal Farm Bill — or at least, a very, very good one — must focus on:

  • Investment in local food systems,
  • Restoration of competitive markets,
  • Fair access to credit and insurance,
  • Thoughtful supply management,
  • Promotion of conservation,
  • Investment in public research for the public good, and,
  • Investment in sustainable energy.

How can you get involved?

get involvedRight now, corporate lobbyists in Washington are hard at work carrying water for big agribusiness. Additionally, industry-backed special interest groups who claim to represent farmers are busy shilling the company line and hoping nobody notices that their boards of directors are flush with representatives from companies like DuPont and Monsanto. They think they can pull a fast one on American voters and buy enough votes to strengthen their bottom lines. But, they only win if you stay silent.

Please, take five minutes to contact your Representative and Senators and urge them to put people before profits. The Senate is crafting a new version of the Farm Bill, and the House recently voted down a highly flawed Farm Bill and has promised to bring it up again in June.

The time to act is now.

Read more stories about agriculture and food here.