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The Wide-Ranging Impact of the US Farm Bill

There’s more than one drought choking the country. On Capitol Hill, there’s a drought of ideas – and compassion – about farmers, rural America and the needy.

The House recently decided not to finish the Farm Bill, nor even extend the current FB for a year, withdrawing it supposedly to handle disaster relief for victims of damaging heat and drought but mostly to cover their hindquarters from constituents’ anger during its five-week recess. The Farm Bill, which the House Agriculture Committee passed in July, affects everyone by ideally ensuring food is safe, affordable and sustainable. The Senate passed its version in June, but House conservatives and farm-state Republicans can’t agree, much less compromise with Democrats, much less reconcile with the Senate.

For example, drastic cuts include reductions in food-stamp aid; the House version cuts $35 billion, almost half from food stamps, and the Senate version cuts $23 billion but “only” $2 billion from food stamps.

The drought and heat could adversely affect yields or lead to crop loss, drive up food prices, increase insurance claims, force some farms into foreclosure, costing local communities key taxes, and hurt exports and foreign aid. Half of the country is experiencing drought, according to the National Climatic Data Center. The fourth warmest June on record, it was also one of the driest, with precipitation below average. By mid-July, 80% of the nation was abnormally dry, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported.

The bipartisan Midwestern Governors Association in June made agriculture and conservation policy recommendations to Congress, from improving farmers’ safety net and addressing rural water, wastewater and nutrient runoff to supporting research on livestock waste management and specialty crops, to little effect.

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn – who initiated the recommendation process when he was 2011 chair for the nine-state group – said, “Midwestern farmers and ranchers are stewards of the region, producing food for families around the world and protecting America's bounty for the next generation. The Farm Bill provides rural America with the necessary tools and resources to ensure safe food, homegrown energy, clean air and water, protection for critical wildlife habitats, and recreational opportunities.”

Created in 1933, the Farm Bill since the ’60s has been passed about every five years. The 2008 Farm Bill, which expires Sept. 30, was about $300 billion, with 67% for nutrition (including food stamps), 15% for ag subsidies, 9% for conservation and 8% for crop insurance, according to the USDA. Last summer Congress couldn’t agree on deficit reduction and appointed a Super Committee, which also couldn’t agree, so automatic cuts across the federal budget are set to start in January, and the Farm Bill could get hit with $15.6 billion of those cuts, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Some rural advocates worry that family farms and rural areas will suffer.

Timothy Collins, with the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs, headquartered at Western Illinois University, said, “The power brokers are there and still very much in control.”

Indeed, more than 90% of soybean seeds and 80% of corn seeds used by U.S. farmers come from Monsanto; Cargill, JBS and Tyson process more than 70% of all U.S. beef; and most subsidies go to large corporations, urban residents or big commodity operations, according to the Environmental Working Group.

So, after the Senate left for August, the House passed a measure to offer disaster aid to livestock producers, paying for it by cutting $630 million from conservation. Cattle ranchers need aid, but it wouldn’t help dairy, pork, poultry, or crop producers, all of whom would most benefit from Congress compromising on a new Farm Bill offering certainty and including disaster relief and other safety-net provisions.

Meanwhile, some 46 million consumers buy food through Food Stamps (now called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP). That’s about 1 in 7 Americans, many victims of the 2008 economic collapse. The House Ag Committee would remove 2 million Americans from SNAP and make 280,000 kids ineligible for free school lunches.

Collins said, “The current $80-billion Fiscal Year food-stamp expenditure represents about .02% of the proposed new budget. Poverty tends to be more prevalent in rural areas [so] federal food programs – SNAP, WIC and school nutrition programs, for example – are particularly important.

“In the rush for ‘reform,’ fiscal responsibility and efficiency, the proposal does save money,” he continued. ‘But here’s the unspoken truth: This Farm Bill would inflict real harm on real people who are blocked from full participation in American economic life. Let’s call it what it is: a cruel injustice to the poor that hurts us all.”

Bill Knight is a freelance writer. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Western Illinois University or Tri States Public Radio.