Commentary by Susan Crowell: What farm bill history do we want to repeat?

Don’t ask me why, but this afternoon I reached into my file cabinet and pulled out a thick folder labeled “2002 Farm Bill.”

And — surprise, surprise! — the House and Senate leaders were trading barbs and pointing fingers at the tail end of 2001 as to why Congress couldn’t get a farm bill finalized.

“For the Senate to delay passage of the farm bill and then not complete their job is like shining up the tractor, driving up to the edge of the field and stalling the engine,” declared then-House Agriculture Chairman Larry Combest, R-Texas.

To which Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., responded, “Republicans continue to employ procedural roadblocks to slow consideration and completion of the farm bill on the Senate floor.”

Delays in farm bill development aren’t new. The 1995 farm bill became the 1996 Freedom to Farm Act, and the 2007 farm bill didn’t get finalized until May 2008. We shouldn’t expect anything different from a Congress that can’t get budget bills approved until mid-point in that unfinished budget’s fiscal year.

Crafting a farm bill is complicated stuff. Throw politics into the mix and you get gridlock.

As evidenced from the current calls to split the food assistance programs from the farm programs, proponents and opponents for the legislation come from different camps: food policy, farm policy, energy policy, natural resources/conservation/environment, rural development, and Tea Partiers and fiscal hawks who want to control government spending, just to name a few.

None of the camps has enough clout to pass a farm bill without linking arms with another camp. We still need a broad coalition to pass legislation that includes conservation, farm and food programs.

Lost in all the rhetoric are some important details:

Reality check: Commodity programs declined from a high of $24.4 billion in 2005 to less than $10 billion per year in 2010.

Want farmers to get more bang for those bucks? Channel more federal money into agricultural research.

Ag economist J.M. Alston (2009) estimates that every dollar spent on ag research and development would generate a $10 benefit to farmers. Compare that to Alston’s estimate (again, from 2009) that farmers receive only about 50 cents of every farm subsidy dollar.

Reality check: Funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, rose from $12.2 billion in 1985 to $68.3 billion in 2010. One in eight Americans, or 44 million people, received food assistance in 2010. And U.S. food assistance programs represent the largest portion — around 75% (although you’ll see other numbers) — of farm bill spending.

Is the system needed? Yes. Do we need to reform this system? Yes. For one, shove some of those dollars into SNAP-ED, the nutrition education component. That way, perhaps more recipients will buy peas instead of PopTarts.

Reality check: While, yes, current farm revenues are high, farm input costs rose by 55 percent over the last six years, far higher than overall inflation.

Farmers assume more risk than the average small business. Give them the tools to hedge that risk.

Reality check: Even though many farms are large, and many families form a family partnership or family corporation, the bulk today’s farms can still be considered a family farm.

People want to support farmers; they just don’t want to support the Ted Turners of the world. We need a means test to target that support.

Reality check: The recent failed House floor farm bill vote was the first time Speaker Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, ever voted in favor of a farm bill.

And that just means facts can be stranger than fiction.

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By Susan Crowell

About the Author

Farm and Dairy Editor Susan Crowell has been with the paper since 1985, serving as its editor since 1989. Raised on a farm in Holmes County, she is a graduate of Kent State University.You can follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/scrowell and follow Farm and Dairy at http://twitter.com/farmanddairy. You can also find her on Google+ and Facebook. More Stories by Susan Crowell

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