The farm bill is the primary way for the US government to set agricultural and food policy. The bill is a comprehensive, multiyear piece of legislation that determines programs and policies about food, farms, forestry, fiber and rural issues. It provides funding for and has an enormous impact on farmers, what and how food is grown, low-income families and rural communities, which in turn impacts local economies, public health, international trade, the environment, food safety and more.

The Farm Bill: An Overview

The farm bill is the primary way for the US government to set agricultural and food policy. The bill is a comprehensive, multiyear piece of legislation that determines programs and policies about food, farms, forestry, fiber and rural issues. It provides funding for and has an enormous impact on farmers, what and how food is grown, low-income families and rural communities, which in turn impacts local economies, public health, international trade, the environment, food safety and more.

What Is the Farm Bill?

Passed approximately every five years by the United States Congress, the farm bill is a nearly-$500 billion piece of legislation, or omnibus bill, addressing agriculture and other policy issues under the purview of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The bill changes and adjusts parts of existing permanent law; reauthorizes, changes or repeals pieces of previous farm bills; and advances new policies and new programs.

The farm bill is made up of about a dozen sections, called “titles,” covering aspects of the food system from farm to fork. However, the most important basis of the farm bill, since the very first one in 1933, is that it includes two primary issues: 1) farm programs that support farmers growing storable commodity products like corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, cotton and dairy; and 2) federal nutrition programs, including the food stamp program, known today as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). 1

The interplay between these two major sections of the bill is considered key to the passage of the bill in Congress. Members from farming districts work to protect agriculture subsidies, negotiating deals with members from urban districts that support nutrition programs for low-income families in exchange for support of farm programs. Bringing these two constituencies together has historically worked to pass both farm and nutrition programs that likely would not have enough support to pass on their own. When proposals have been made to “split the farm bill” — remove nutrition programs from the bill — there has been strong opposition, recognizing the move would likely lead to deep cuts to the social safety net. 23

In the last few decades, the farm bill has grown tremendously. Today, crop insurance and conservation are two additional important titles. The bill also covers credit, renewable energy, rural development, horticulture, agricultural research, forestry, local food programs and more.

The laws and programs included in the farm bill are those that fall under the jurisdiction of the House Committee on Agriculture and Senate Committee on Agriculture, Forestry and Nutrition. There are also a host of food and farming issues not included in the farm bill because they are outside the jurisdiction of these committees — including issues related to farm and food workers, public lands, grazing rights, fisheries, water rights, FDA-controlled food safety programs, laws under the Clean Water Act (administered by the EPA), Renewable Fuel Standards and agricultural taxation, among others. 4 Also, while child nutrition programs, including school meals, farm to school programs and the Women, Infant and Children Program (WIC), do fall under the purview of the Senate Agriculture Committee, they are addressed in the Child Nutrition Act, which is a separate piece of legislation. Policies related to genetically modified organisms and pesticides are regulated by multiple agencies including the EPA, FDA and USDA, and are under the jurisdiction of multiple committees, and thus are also left out of the farm bill. 5

The Origins of the Farm Bill

The first such bill, the Agriculture Adjustment Act of 1933 was authorized as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the massive set of domestic programs designed to bring the country out of the Great Depression and make reforms in industry, agriculture, finance, labor, housing and infrastructure. 6 The Administration’s aims with the New Deal were to assist the millions of poor and unemployed Americans and to establish both emergency and long term government aid. The bill, which also closely followed the environmental devastation of the Dust Bowl, aimed to keep food prices fair for farmers and consumers, ensure an adequate food supply and protect and sustain the country’s natural resources. 7

The Agricultural Act of 2014

The Agricultural Act of 2014, more commonly referred to as the 2014 Farm Bill, was signed by President Obama in February 2014 and expired on September 30, 2018. In the event that a new bill is not passed before the expiration date, Congress may pass a temporary resolution to extend all programs of the 2014 bill. Without that, farm policy reverts back to “permanent law,” which is the 1933 Act. The prior farm bill, the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008, expired in 2012, but was extended by temporary resolutions, as political wrangling delayed a final deal on the bill for two years.

The 2014 Farm Bill contains the following twelve titles:

TITLE I: COMMODITIES — Covering payment and loan programs for farmers who grow commodity crops like corn, wheat, rice and soybeans. The 2014 bill eliminates direct and counter-cyclical payments to farmers; instead, farmers must incur crop losses or damage in order to receive government payments. These programs work together with crop insurance to subsidize the growth of commodity crops. Title One also included disaster programs for farmers and ranchers, as well as programs offering price supports for sugar and dairy producers. The dairy producer program changed significantly in the 2014 bill, especially through the creation of the Dairy Margin Protection Program.

TITLE II: CONSERVATION — Covering conservation programs that provided financial incentives, training and technical assistance to farmers to encourage them to protect waterways, soil, habitats, wild animals and environmentally sensitive lands. 8 It included programs critical to supporting sustainable agriculture, including the Conservation Reserve Program (CSP), the Conservation Stewardship Program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, among others. Except for CSP, several of these important programs had major cuts in the 2014 Farm Bill. 9

TITLE III: TRADE — Including programs that focus on providing international food aid to developing countries — a key tool of American diplomacy and foreign policy — and commodity crop exports. It also provided funding for programs that offer technical support to farmers, food education and child nutrition programs across the globe. 10

TITLE IV: NUTRITION — The biggest ticket item in the 2014 bill is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). In addition to offering financial assistance to low-income families to purchase food, this section also includes other related nutrition and education programs, as well as grant programs that the emergency food system relies on to operate food banks and soup kitchens. 11 In a major win for sustainable agriculture, the 2014 Farm Bill also included funding for programs that support local and regional food systems and healthy food access, such as the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program, Community Food Projects, a local food procurement pilot project and the new Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program. The Bill also authorized the Healthy Food Financing Initiative. 12

TITLE V: CREDIT — Containing programs to extend loans and credit to farmers, including the Consolidated Farmers Home Administration Act of 1961 (Con Act), which authorized USDA credit and rural development programs, loan programs for Native American tribes and tribal corporations, and a grant matching program for states offering last resort loans to farmers unable to obtain money from other lenders. 13

TITLE VI: RURAL DEVELOPMENT — Including community development and economic and infrastructure development programs, which provided investment and loans for development of cooperatives and small businesses in struggling rural areas. The title also supports rural utilities, water and waste management and other infrastructure. Specific sections offer funding for local food systems through the Value Added Producer Grant Program, the Rural Micro Entrepreneur Assistance Program and the Rural Businesses Development Grant program. 14

TITLE VII: RESEARCH AND EXTENSION PROGRAM — Authorizes USDA to conduct agricultural research and provide support for cooperative extension programs and other state-level agricultural higher education programs. It also includes the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Program, providing new farmers with mentoring, technical assistance and training; the Organic Research and Extension Initiative; the Organic Production and Market Data Initiatives; as well as the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension Program (SARE) — the only competitive USDA grants research program focusing solely on sustainable agriculture. The 2014 bill removed SARE’s permanent authorization, so its funding is now expired unless it is included in the next bill. 15

TITLE VIII: FORESTRY — Including the Healthy Forests Reserve Program, which helps landowners restore, enhance and protect forests on private land through easements and financial assistance as well as to aid in the recovery of endangered species, improve plant and animal biodiversity and enhance carbon sequestration. 16

TITLE IX: ENERGY — Covering the development and promotion of the production of renewable energy from biofuels and agricultural products. It includes grant programs for farmers and rural businesses to incentivize renewable energy and energy efficiency technology installations and improvements, biofuel research and a program that authorizes the use of Commodity Credit Corporation funds to purchase surplus sugar for resale as biomass feedstock. 17

TITLE X: HORTICULTURE — Including programs to support fruit and vegetable production (known as “specialty crops”), as well as organic and local foods. The 2014 Farm Bill includes increased funding for the innovative programs that small and sustainable farmers and community-based organizations depend on, like the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program and the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program 18, as well as funding for the Specialty Crop Block Grant program and the National Organic Program. 19

TITLE XI: CROP INSURANCE — Crop insurance, covered by this title, is now the primary safety net program for farmers. Insurance contracts, which are made on a crop-by-crop and county-by-county basis offer some protection against losses due to market price drops, bad weather or other categories of crop damage.

Two new insurance programs were created in the 2014 Farm Bill, including the STAX program for cotton farmers and the Supplemental Coverage Option to cover the financial losses farmers may have due to high insurance deductibles. 20 Significantly for sustainable agriculture, the 2014 Farm Bill also expanded crop insurance coverage and subsidies, re-instituted conservation requirements as a condition of receipt of crop insurance subsidies and created a Whole-Farm Revenue Protection program to insure crop and livestock on diversified farms growing specialty and organic produce or which market their products locally. 21

TITLE XII: MISCELLANEOUS — The last title in the 2014 Farm Bill contains a mix of different programs that didn’t quite fit into the other titles of the bill. The title is broken into different sections, including livestock, socially disadvantaged and limited-resource production programs, oil heat efficiency, research and jobs training and “other.” In the 2014 Farm Bill, the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmer Program included in this title was expanded to include veteran farmers for the first time. 22

How Much Does the Farm Bill Cost?

At the time it was signed, the projected five-year cost of the mandatory programs in the 2014 Farm Bill was $489 billion, with much of that cost — about 75 percent — coming from the nutrition title. 23 The other big ticket items in the bill include crop insurance subsidies (nine percent), conservation programs (six percent) and commodity subsidies (five percent). 24 These costs, however, were based on budget projections, which change with changing economic conditions, program participation rates and other factors. A 2016 recalculation of the cost of the 2014 Farm Bill, for example, put the total cost of the bill at $457 billion: a $32 billion dip, resulting largely from a substantial decrease in SNAP costs ($24 billion less) due to lower than anticipated participation in the program thanks to the economic recovery. In addition, a drop in cost levels for crop insurance and conservation programs, coupled with a substantial increase in commodity subsidy costs ($15 billion more) resulting from the poor health of the farm economy in 2016 and 2017, all changed the final cost of the farm bill. 25

2014 Farm Bill Total Outlays
Click to view full infographic

Shockingly, only one percent of the cost of the current farm bill actually goes to a combination of fresh produce production, rural communities and sustainable and local agriculture programs. This small piece of the pie includes funding for beginning and minority farmers, value-added programs, rural business development, organic farming, fruits and vegetables, local food, nutrition incentives and agricultural research. 26 Outside of nutrition programs for low income families, on the whole, the farm bill largely supports and incentivizes the production of large-scale monocrops of commodities, dairy and factory farmed meat through its funding and grant programs.

How Are Farm Bill Programs Funded? Appropriation vs. Authorization

In general, there are two types of legislation that Congress works on: authorization bills and appropriation bills. The farm bill is an authorizing legislation, meaning that it creates policies and programs, most of which must then be funded through annual appropriations legislation (government spending bills), which establishes discretionary spending levels for programs to be implemented. There are twelve annual appropriations bills passed by Congress each year. One of these bills is the agriculture appropriations bill, which includes most funding for farm bill programs as well as the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the agencies which implement those programs. Many farm bill programs are authorized but never appropriated, which means that they never get implemented even though they may exist on paper for years or even decades. Some programs are appropriated but never authorized, although this is rare. 27

Mandatory Programs

The farm bill itself also controls about a half-trillion dollars in funding, referred to interchangeably as mandatory funding or direct funding. 28 The Commodity Credit Corporation — a federal government entity created to support and stabilize farm prices and incomes — provides funding to these mandatory programs as needed (or to the level prescribed in the farm bill), which are not subject to annual funding decisions by Congress. 29 As a result, spending on mandatory programs is not subject to annual limits or variable costs from year to year as a result of changes to the economy or program participation levels; and, there is no automatic reconsideration of funding for these programs over the five-year life of the farm bill. 30 However, funding levels for mandatory programs can be changed, but only by Congress through new legislation. 31 Examples of programs with mandatory funding include SNAP and most commodity and conservation programs. Programs without mandatory funding include many of the more progressive local food, sustainable agriculture and nutrition programs, including the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program, the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program, Organic programs and the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, among others. 32

Under regular order, annual agriculture appropriations deal only with discretionary funding. However, in recent years, appropriations bills have also been used by Congress to encroach on the authority of the farm bill and the agriculture committees. 33 By making “changes in mandatory program spending” (or CHIMPS), Congress has been able to reduce mandatory spending on farm bill programs. Significantly, for sustainable agriculture, this has been used most often in recent years to reduce the amount of money spent on conservation and renewable energy programs in the farm bill. 34 Also recently, Congress has been adding policy riders (language that makes temporary policy and program changes) to spending bills, to make changes to programs established in the farm bill, like Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) and the Packers and Stockyards Act enforcement (the GIPSA rule, which protects small farmers and ranchers from being unfairly treated by big meat packing corporations). 35

How Does the Farm Bill Process Work?

When done in regular order (from drafting the new legislation to putting the programs into effect on the ground), the farm bill process encompasses three main phases: writing and passing the farm bill; funding the farm bill; and rulemaking.

Phase One: Writing and Passing the Farm Bill

Before the current farm bill expires, members of Congress hold hearings in Washington, DC and across the nation to get public input, while stakeholders voice their interests through the media and in meetings with specific senators and representatives. Both the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry and the House Committee on Agriculture then draft and mark up separate bills. Once the committees each agree on their separate proposals they are presented for a full vote in each chamber. If the bill is passed, House and Senate leaders appoint members to a joint conference committee that creates a single new compromise bill that can be passed by both chambers. When the final farm bill is approved it is sent to the President who has the choice to either sign it into law or veto it, forcing Congress to make further changes.

Phase Two: Funding the Farm Bill

After the bill is signed, the legislation then gets funded through the appropriations process discussed above. The first step in the funding process is for the President to send his budget request to Congress. Then, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees send a budget to the Agriculture subcommittee to use to set funding levels for farm bill programs for the coming fiscal year. Once the House and Senate Agriculture Appropriations sub-committees have drafted, finalized and voted on their appropriations bills to fund farm bill programs, the bill is then sent to the larger Appropriations Committees to be “marked up,” or edited. Once the bill is finalized by both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, the bill goes to a conference committee where the House and Senate bills are combined. It is then sent to the floors of the house and Senate for a final vote and then to the President for signing.

Phase Three: Rulemaking

The final phase of the farm bill process is rulemaking. During this process, programs that have been finalized in the farm bill and funded through the appropriations process are now the responsibility of the USDA, which must figure out how to implement the programs in the bill. At this point, advocates usually meet with USDA staff to discuss the administration of new and existing programs. If a new program has been created under the farm bill, the USDA must put together rules for how to implement the program and make these proposed rules available for public comment through the Federal Register. By law, the comments sent to the USDA are all reviewed by USDA staff, who then incorporates the feedback they receive into the final plan for implementing the program(s). Then, the USDA publishes the finalized rule for how it will implement the program in the Federal Register. The USDA then starts implementing and managing the program according to the newly established rules.

Since the 1980s, funding in the farm bill has been impacted by the budget reconciliation process. Using this process, the agriculture committees cut mandatory spending for programs by the amount directed by the annual congressional budget. 36 The agriculture committee then sends a new bill to the Budget Committee reflecting those program funding cuts by a particular date. 37 The agriculture committee ultimately decides which farm bill programs to cut to reach the target budget number they’ve been assigned. The agriculture committee’s new bill is then combined with other bills reported back from other committees into a large omnibus budget reconciliation bill. This new reconciliation bill, unlike other pieces of legislation, cannot be filibustered in the Senate and can therefore be passed with a majority rather than a supermajority of votes. Budget reconciliation bills were used to cut funding for farm bill programs in 1982, 1987, 1989, 1990, 1993, 1996 and 2005. 38

 

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Hide References

  1. National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (2016). Farm bill 2018: A primer. Retrieved from: http://www.safsf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/2018-Farm-Bill-Primer-for-SAFSF1.pdf
  2. Smith, Vincent H. (2013). What happens when you split a farm bill? American Enterprise Institute. Retrieved from: http://www.aei.org/publication/what-happens-when-you-split-a-farm-bill/
  3. Weisman, J., and Nixon, R. (2013). House Republicans push through farm bill, without food stamps. New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/12/us/politics/house-bill-would-split-farm-and-food-stamp-programs.html
  4. National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (2016). Farm bill 2018: A primer. Retrieved from: http://www.safsf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/2018-Farm-Bill-Primer-for-SAFSF1.pdf
  5. National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (2016). Farm bill 2018: A primer. Retrieved from: http://www.safsf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/2018-Farm-Bill-Primer-for-SAFSF1.pdf
  6. Encyclopedia Britannica (2017). New Deal. Retrieved from: https://www.britannica.com/event/New-Deal
  7. National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (2017). What is the farm bill? Retrieved from: http://sustainableagriculture.net/our-work/campaigns/fbcampaign/what-is-the-farm-bill/
  8. Wallace, S. (2014). The 2014 Farm Bill: Conservation programs. Retrieved from: http://www.thefarmbill.com/title-2-main-conservation-programs
  9. National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (February 11, 2014). 2014 Farm Bill drilldown: Local and regional food systems, healthy food access, rural development. Retrieved from: http://sustainableagriculture.net/blog/2014-farmbill-local-rd-organic/
  10. Wallace, S. (2014). The 2014 Farm Bill: Trade Programs. Retrieved from: http://www.thefarmbill.com/title-3-trade-programs
  11. Wallace, S. (2014). The 2014 Farm Bill: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Retrieved from: http://www.thefarmbill.com/title-4-snap
  12. Wallace, S. (2014). The 2014 Farm Bill: Nutrition Programs. Retrieved from: http://www.thefarmbill.com/title-4-nutrition-programs
  13. Wallace, S. (2014). The 2014 Farm Bill: Credit Programs. Retrieved from: The Farm Bill.com http://www.thefarmbill.com/title-5-credit-programs
  14. Wallace, S. (2014). The 2014 Farm Bill: Rural and Economic Development Programs. http://www.thefarmbill.com/title-6-rural-economic-development
  15. National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (October 2016). Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. Retrieved from: http://sustainableagriculture.net/publications/grassrootsguide/sustainable-organic-research/sustainable-agriculture-research-and-education-program/
  16. Wallace, S. (2014). The 2014 Farm Bill: Forestry programs. Retrieved from: http://www.thefarmbill.com/title-8-forestry-program
  17. Wallace, S. (2014). The 2014 Farm Bill: Energy programs. Retrieved from: http://www.thefarmbill.com/title-9-energy-programs
  18. National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (February 11, 2014). 2014 Farm Bill drilldown: Local and regional food systems, healthy food access, rural development. Retrieved from: http://sustainableagriculture.net/blog/2014-farmbill-local-rd-organic/
  19. United States Department of Agriculture (2014). 2014 Farm Bill highlights. Retrieved from: https://www.rd.usda.gov/files/2014_USDA_Farm_Bill_Highlights.pdf
  20. Wallace, S. (2014). The 2014 Farm Bill: Title XI: Crop insurance. Retrieved from: http://www.thefarmbill.com/blank-c875
  21. National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (2016). Farm bill 2018: A primer. Retrieved from: http://www.safsf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/2018-Farm-Bill-Primer-for-SAFSF1.pdf
  22. National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (2016). Farm bill 2018: A primer. Retrieved from: http://www.safsf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/2018-Farm-Bill-Primer-for-SAFSF1.pdf
  23. National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (2016). Farm bill 2018: A primer. Retrieved from: http://www.safsf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/2018-Farm-Bill-Primer-for-SAFSF1.pdf
  24. National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (2016). Farm bill 2018: A primer. Retrieved from: http://www.safsf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/2018-Farm-Bill-Primer-for-SAFSF1.pdf
  25. National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (2016). Farm bill 2018: A primer. Retrieved from: http://www.safsf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/2018-Farm-Bill-Primer-for-SAFSF1.pdf
  26. National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (2016). Farm bill 2018: A primer. Retrieved from: http://www.safsf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/2018-Farm-Bill-Primer-for-SAFSF1.pdf
  27. National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (2016). Farm bill 2018: A primer. Retrieved from: http://www.safsf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/2018-Farm-Bill-Primer-for-SAFSF1.pdf
  28. National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (2016). Farm bill 2018: A primer. Retrieved from: http://www.safsf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/2018-Farm-Bill-Primer-for-SAFSF1.pdf
  29. United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service (October 11, 2017). Projected spending under the 2014 Farm Bill. Retrieved from: https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/farm-economy/farm-commodity-policy/projected-spending-under-the-2014-farm-bill/
  30. Ibid.
  31. Ibid.
  32. National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (2017). Path to the 2018 Farm Bill: Programs with expiring funding. Retrieved from: http://sustainableagriculture.net/blog/path-to-the-2018-farmbill-stranded-programs/
  33. National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (2016). Farm bill 2018: A primer. Retrieved from: http://www.safsf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/2018-Farm-Bill-Primer-for-SAFSF1.pdf
  34. National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (2016). Farm bill 2018: A primer. Retrieved from: http://www.safsf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/2018-Farm-Bill-Primer-for-SAFSF1.pdf
  35. National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (2016). Farm bill 2018: A primer. Retrieved from: http://www.safsf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/2018-Farm-Bill-Primer-for-SAFSF1.pdf
  36. National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (2016). Farm bill 2018: A primer. Retrieved from: http://www.safsf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/2018-Farm-Bill-Primer-for-SAFSF1.pdf
  37. National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (2016). Farm bill 2018: A primer. Retrieved from: http://www.safsf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/2018-Farm-Bill-Primer-for-SAFSF1.pdf
  38. National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (2016). Farm bill 2018: A primer. Retrieved from: http://www.safsf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/2018-Farm-Bill-Primer-for-SAFSF1.pdf