As the summer recess for Congress winds down, interest groups and political pundits will be winding up the rhetoric on the farm bill debate. A comprehensive farm bill went down to defeat in June in the House of Representatives and a “farm-only” farm bill excluding the nutrition title passed the House in July. Since then, discussion has centered on whether the House could reunite the farm and nutrition portions of the bill in September, or in conference with the Senate on their comprehensive version of the farm bill.
The farm vs. nutrition debate has been the headline of the past two months, and the nutrition title itself seems to be the biggest sticking point to a new farm bill. But it is worth remembering that even the “farm-only” farm bill is about much more than just the farm. For long-time ag policy followers, this is not news. While the rural-urban coalition to support farm and food spending has been around for 40 years, the farm bill has reached beyond the farm gate to the rest of rural America much longer. Older efforts to support farmers in order to support the nation’s food security, natural resources and rural economies should also remind us of the breadth of stakeholders in the farm bill debate.
The farm bill has long been argued to be a food security bill. Commodity programs supported production and farm operators. Research and education funding improved productivity, so much so that real prices of agricultural commodities have fallen for decades. The addition of nutrition programs more directly focused food spending on food insecure households. Just as the old adage says that “everyone who eats has a stake in agriculture”, clearly everyone is impacted by farm bill programs. With commodity policy (commodity title plus crop insurance) at just less than 15% of the total farm bill and the nutrition title at nearly 80%, it is clear why the debate typically starts with the farm and food components.
But the reach extends beyond the dinner plate. Conservation became ingrained in the farm bill in the 1930s in response to the “Dust Bowl” conditions. More recently, the provisions of the 1985 Farm Bill laid the foundation for the current slate of conservation policies and programs with conservation compliance and the Conservation Reserve Program. Outside of the vast public lands of the Western United States, agricultural producers and landowners control the vast majority of the nation’s lands. Any public policy efforts to manage or promote environmental stewardship of these resources would typically include incentive programs such as those found in the farm bill’s conservation title. Conservation programs have grown substantially since 1985 and in fact, are now projected to cost more than the commodity title of the bill at about 6% of the total.
Rural development has been a primary focus of the farm bill, as well. Actually, long before the farm bill came into being, agricultural policies were essentially focused on rural development and economic growth, including the whole generation of land distribution policies from the nation’s birth generally through the end of the 19th century. Within the scope of the farm bill, rural development started as a byproduct of farm supports in an era when much of the nation’s rural counties were economically dependent on agriculture.
Today, many fewer rural counties are officially dependent on agriculture, with the concentration of those remaining in the High Plains. But agriculture is still important in the nation’s more diversified rural economies, as can be seen by any review of the recent national recession juxtaposed against the robust agricultural economy. While a small fraction of total farm bill spending, rural development policies are focused on infrastructure, economic development and the barriers that can hinder economic activity, such as the current focus on availability of rural broadband internet access.
When you examine the parts of the farm bill other than the commodity, crop insurance and nutrition titles, you begin to see the real breadth of farm bill legislation. It isn’t just about the farm supports, as some pundits and interest groups would argue. And, it isn’t just about food program spending, as other pundits and interest groups would argue. Tucked into the rest of the bill are several titles that affect all of us, whether we benefit from research and education that promotes growth in productivity and living standards, or we benefit from investments in resource stewardship or rural economic development among others. The farm bill does matter to all of us. We’ll see if it matters enough to Congress to get it done.