Farm Bill 101

What Is It?

It’s been said that The Farm Bill should be re-named The Food Bill, because it influences what we eat every day — from the cost, quality and availability of food, to the tools available to communities to protect farm and ranch land. If we understand the Farm Bill, which has global impacts on food prices and availability, we’ll be better able to address the global changes needed to ensure that everyone has access to affordable, healthy food.

The Farm Bill is a set of federal laws that establishes the general direction for America’s farm and food policy. It is called an “omnibus” bill, which means it covers a broad range of subjects and programs. Congress writes, debates and passes a new version of the Farm Bill every 5 to 7 years. Some of the programs in the bill are “mandatory” — they are definitely funded, even if they go over-budget, and some are “discretionary,” which means Congress assigns funds to pay for them later (or doesn’t). The discretionary programs are reviewed every year until a new Farm Bill is written.

What is the History of the Farm Bill?

In 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the first farm bill, called the Agricultural Adjustment Act, to aid struggling and increasingly rebellious farmers during the Great Depression. Farmers were faced at the time with rock bottom prices — corn prices actually hit $0! The government began paying “parities,” prices roughly equal to what prices should be during favorable market times, for storable crops called “commodities.” Farmers were also paid not to produce certain crops, or not to raise livestock; producers were even paid to plow up already planted acres of Southern cotton and large numbers of baby pigs were slaughtered in the Midwest to limit supply and drive up prices.

The first farm bill also addressed national hunger, soil erosion, lack of credit and unfair export practices. Since then, there have been 15 Farm Bills, each with its own name, which have, in one way or another addressed these issues. Unfortunately, many of these original programs, which were designed to ensure that there was enough food for all and fair prices for farmers, have been stripped away or replaced with programs that benefit corporate interests.

What’s in the Farm Bill?

The Farm Bill is organized into different areas called “titles.” New titles are added as new issues become crucial to the farm economy and movements addressing hunger, environmental preservation and energy. For example, in 2002 a new Energy Title was added to the bill. The current Farm Bill, passed in 2008 is called The Food, Conservation, and Energy Act. It has 15 different titles, including commodity price and income supports, farm credit, trade, food stamps, agricultural conservation, rural development, bio-energy, international food aid and research.

The mandatory spending for the 2008 bill over a period of 5 years was supposed to be about $288 billion. Now it looks like the amount will be closer to $420 billion. This sounds like a huge sum, but is actually less than one percent of the federal budget.

Nutrition programs including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as Food Stamps, emergency food assistance, school lunches, the Women, Infant and Children Program (WIC) and the Farmers Market Nutrition Program receive the highest level of funding, 76% of total Farm Bill spending ($314 billion).

Commodity subsidies the next largest category account for 10% of spending ($32 billion). Commodity programs are often mentioned, but not well-understood. Subsidies (money paid by the government) are given to farmers growing program crops — corn, cotton, wheat, rice and soybeans are heavily favored. The subsidies influence our diet and therefore our health, but the subsidies also have a large impact on struggling farmers in other countries.

In the globalized commodity markets of today, small farmers’ crop prices are competing against subsidy-lowered American crop prices. This has devastating consequences. One example: When the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) opened the doors to agricultural trade with Mexico, subsidized (and therefore cheaper) U.S. corn flooded the Mexican market; many small farmers could not compete and lost their farms. This resulted in the heavy upswing in immigration to the U.S. from Mexico in the 1990s. The disenfranchised corn farmers needed to find work.

Few people realize that the farm bill is the largest single source of federal funding for conservation on U.S. private land – 6% of spending ($22 billion). Funding for crop insurance has increased tremendously in recent years; it is now $28 billion.

Who in Congress Writes the Farm Bill?

The House and Senate Agriculture Committees each write their own versions of the bill, and then negotiate the differences. Therefore, the makeup of each committee is critical to how the Farm Bill turns out. Farm Bill 1.02: The Farm Bill, the Field and the Players contains good discussions on the members of the committees and what it may mean for farm and food policy. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) is the chair of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, and Frank Lucas (R-OK) is the Chair of the House committee (Lucas is a strong supporter of commodity subsidies, while Stabenow’s preferences are less known).

Once passed, the Farm Bill moves into “appropriations” — a process that determines how much money each program receives. In the ultimate paradox, the USDA recommends that we all eat more fruits and vegetables, while the Farm Bill promotes the production of more grain!

An important part of the Farm Bill story is that many worthwhile and publicly-supported programs are vastly underfunded or not funded at all. Programs that would address the need for access to healthy food, organic and sustainable agriculture, community food programs, and support for new farmers and ranchers receive less than 1% of total Farm Bill funding.  Also, during the current budget cutting frenzy, the agriculture committees have proposed cutting conservation programs disproportionately more than commodity subsidy and crop insurance programs.

Discussions are well underway in Congress about new legislation for 2012. In the fall of 2011, members of Congress wrote a “Secret” Farm bill for 2012 behind closed doors. Luckily, it was scrapped when the Super Committee failed to reach an agreement on cuts to the federal budget.

The time for advocating for the changes that we want in the Farm Bill is NOW! In the Seattle area, get involved through the Northwest Farm Bill Action Group. To join the mailing list, e-mail

The following groups have published platforms for the 2012 Farm Bill. Learn More!!!!

Community Food Security Coalition (still posted in draft form)

Food and Water Watch

National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s 2012 Farm Bill Platform Budget Chapter

The American Farmland Trust and 55 other groups outlined a set of key principles that lawmakers should observe as they write the Conservation Title of the 2012 farm bill and seek ways to trim the federal deficit. Click HERE.

The References used to write this piece are listed below and provide a good overview of the Farm Bill.

Farm Bill 1.01: An Introduction and Brief History of the Farm Bill (Ed Yowell and Fern Gale Estrow, NYC Food Systems Network, 2011)

Farm Bill 1.02: The Farm Bill, the Field and the Players (Ed Yowell and Fern Gale Estrow, NYC Food Systems Network, 2011). Discusses the political players in the 2012 Farm Bill Game and programs that are more vulnerable to being cut.

Farm Bill 1.04: School Lunches and the Farm Bill (Travis Hobart, MD with Fern Gale Estrow, Sheilah Davidson, Thomas Forster, and Ed Yowell, NYC Food Systems Network, June 2011). The Farm Bill and the Child Nutrition Act Set the Table for School Lunches.

Farm Bill 1.05: H.R. 2112 Defines the 2012 Farm Bill Playing Field (Mark Dunlea with Ed Yowell, NYC Food Systems Network, July 2011) The 2012 Farm Bill Starts with the 2011 Ag Budget.

Farm Bill 1.06: What You Need to Know about Food Stamps and the 2012 Farm Bill (Michael Crupain MD, MPH with Ed Yowell, August 2011).

Farm Bill 1.07: The Risky Business of Farming (Abby Youngblood and Ed Yowell, NYC Food Systems Network, October, 2011). Crop Insurance explained.

Top 10 Things You Should Know About The Farm Bill (Sara Sciammacco, Civil Eats, June 30th, 2011)

Understanding the Farm Bill: What’s Organic Got to Do With It? (Ann Butkowski, Simply Good and Tasty, June 6, 2011)

Session on the Farm Bill with Slides (Community Food Security Coalition, February 22, 2011). To see the slides in pdf format click here.

Organic Farm Bill Policy 101 (Organic Seed Alliance and National Organic Coalition, 2011)

Better Food Starts with the Farm Bill (Food & Water Watch, June, 2010)

A Farm Bill Primer: Getting Ready for 2012 (Ann Butkowski, Simply Good and Tasty, 2010)

Actual Farm Bill Spending and Cost Estimates (Jim Monk and Renee Johnson, Congressional Research Service, 2010)

Pie illustration courtesy of  America’s Meal Ticket

Also see The Farm Bill In-Depth.

Northwest Farm Bill Action Group • • 2011
Design based on Missed Spring theme • Rainier image courtesy of USGS/Cascades Volcano Observatory