Ag economist puts farm bill into more user-friendly terms

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COLUMBUS — With more than 600 pages and 15 titles, grasping a firm understanding of the 2008 farm bill can be daunting. But Ohio State University agricultural economist Carl Zulauf has made things a bit easier.

Zulauf has summarized the titles and accompanying provisions of the farm bill through a series of Web-based documents.

The papers cover four major areas: farm income and risk management programs, provisions of the other titles, the Supplemental Agricultural Disaster Assistance program, and the ACRE (Average Crop Revenue Election) program.

“These papers do not cover everything in the farm bill, but are meant to be a quick thumbnail sketch of major provisions that might be worth checking into and reading in the larger document,” said Zulauf.

More than just ‘farm’ bill. Zulauf, who has been analyzing farm bills since 1980, said he is astounded by the breadth and depth of the current farm bill.

“Farm bills, over time, have grown progressively larger and more comprehensive, and this one in particular is a wide-ranging omnibus bill,” said Zulauf. “It raises the question of whether or not it is appropriate to continue calling it the farm bill.”

Emerging themes. The four documents were compiled to emphasize specific themes that Zulauf sees emerging from the new farm bill.

For farm income support and risk management programs, the major theme is risk management and not payments to farmers.

“There has been this long-standing debate in farm policy about whether the objective of farm programs is to help farmers manage risk or to increase farm income. Congress clearly lies in the camp of risk management with this farm bill,” said Zulauf.

The ACRE program and the Supplemental Agricultural Disaster Assistance program are designed to help farmers manage different types of risk, he added.

“This focus is consistent with the economic environment in which we currently find ourselves: high farm incomes, but with high farm price volatility.”

Fruits and vegetables. Zulauf said another a significant change in the farm bill is the large number of programs dedicated to fruits and vegetables.

The programs expand demand for fruits and vegetables, and address production-related concerns, said Zulauf.

“If I’m not mistaken, the only large acreage crop that now does not receive support through some type of farm bill program is hay.”

On the horizon. Zulauf said that one of the biggest additions to the new farm bill is the attention directed toward nutritional quality, as opposed to quantity of food, in feeding programs.

Other provisions in the farm bill also receiving special attention from Zulauf include organic production, beginning farmers, socially disadvantaged farmers and limited-resource producers.

“Provisions on these topics appear in several titles. Whenever I see that, it suggests that Congress is particularly concerned about these issues. It’s not just the amount of money being spent, but the number of provisions,” said Zulauf.

“It alerts you that something bigger than an individual Congressional member’s concern exists, and it bears watching to see if this concern continues in future farm bills.”

Conservation programs. The current farm bill is also paying special attention to farm conservation programs, said Zulauf.

The Congressional Budget Office scores spending outlays for Title II farm conservation programs at 64 percent of the spending outlays for Title I farm programs, said Zulauf.

That percent ratio illustrates the increasing role of farm conservation programs, a trend that began with the 1985 farm bill, he added.

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