Commentary: It’s time to begin working on a new federal farm bill


Issue Date: July 6, 2016
By Josh Rolph
Josh Rolph
The most-recent federal farm bills, from 2008 and 2014, will be replaced by a new version due in 2018. Farm organizations and other interested parties are starting to discuss key provisions of the legislation, as Congress prepares for farm bill hearings beginning next year.
Photo/Matt Salvo

In the world of federal agricultural policy, President Abraham Lincoln receives well-deserved credit for establishing the U.S. Department of Agriculture. President Grover Cleveland raised USDA to a Cabinet-level department in 1889. I would suggest that the most significant mark on agricultural policy in the 20th and 21st centuries comes in the form of the "farm bill," which has become the primary source of federal authority and funding for farm and nutrition programs administered by USDA.

In the advocacy world, going through the development of a farm bill is considered a badge of honor. It is common in Washington to hear seasoned agricultural policy staffers at the American Farm Bureau Federation, Capitol Hill staffers, agency staffers and others say, "I've been through four farm bills," and so on. As I go into my third, I've come to appreciate those words, because writing a farm bill is a massive undertaking with many moving parts—at both the policy level and the political level. I find its evolutionary growth during the last century fascinating.

Exactly 100 years ago this month, President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Federal Farm Loan Act, which ultimately evolved into what became known as the "farm bill." True, the 1916 law was not formally known as the farm bill; rather, it was the first federal law providing government-backed credit to farmers, the ancestor of the modern loan and credit system.

The 1916 law was revisited in 1923 with a small expansion. Later that decade, just four months prior to the stock market crash of 1929, Congress enacted the Agricultural Marketing Act. That law aimed to purchase surplus agricultural goods, as crop prices fell in a steady and worrisome decline. As farmers increased production to gain from the government buyout, Congress stepped in with the 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act, which encouraged decreased production for certain crops. The 1933 bill is the act first referred to as "the farm bill."

After the Supreme Court ruled the act unconstitutional in 1936, a 1938 act overcame the court's objections and instituted permanency by requiring a reauthorization every five years. Parts of both the 1938 and 1949 acts remain the base law of the current farm bill. Should the current 2014 Farm Bill expire, those decades-old provisions would become the fallback law, resulting in a considerable hike in dairy and wheat prices. A spike in milk and bread prices has been a decent incentive for politicians to keep a farm bill from expiring.

Since the 1970s, the bill has evolved into what is known as an "omnibus bill," or one that incorporates a large bundle of programs under one big tent, primarily administered by USDA.

In former years, if a farmer grew "program crops," or varieties of rice, wheat, corn or cotton covered directly by the bill, you were very familiar with the farm bill. Today, the bill touches almost every farmer, either directly and indirectly.

In the direct-impact column, I would place the bill's crop insurance products, marketing loans and conservation programs. Crop insurance became a primary focus when the 2014 bill repealed traditional program payments. As severe drought has loomed over California, and insurance has expanded to many more crops, this program has been of critical importance.

Indirect impact on farmers would include specialty crop block grants that aim to enhance the competitiveness of fruits and vegetables, and research programs that seek new scientific breakthroughs in agriculture.

There are many other initiatives within the 12 titles of the bill that affect farmers and ranchers, ranging from rural development programs to forestry to funding to counteract plant pests and diseases that threaten not only farms and ranches but public lands, parks and home gardens as well.

An example of the impact of the farm bill came last week from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, when the agency announced an opportunity for farmers and ranchers to secure funds through an air quality initiative (see story). I can say unequivocally that this announcement would not have occurred without the hard work of former CFBF Federal Policy colleagues Rayne Thompson and Elisa Noble, who advocated tirelessly to retain the program in the 2014 Farm Bill.

That bill is set to expire in 2018. Because of the size and reach of the bill—it authorizes $100 billion in funding, 80 percent directed to nutrition programs—the process of rewriting it typically starts the year prior to expiration. This means that in early 2017, we expect the House and Senate agriculture committees to begin deliberation of the bill, first with hearings on the current bill's effectiveness, then on reform concepts, and subsequently the writing of each title.

For this reason, talks are underway to ensure full representation for California farmers and ranchers in the next iteration of the farm bill. I will participate on a panel at this week's meeting of the State Board of Food and Agriculture, as the state Department of Food and Agriculture aims to develop its policy goals for the bill by taking input from stakeholders.

Farm Bureau members from around California discussed the farm bill during Issue Advisory Committee meetings, and we will take an active part in AFBF discussions with other state Farm Bureaus.

As we develop our position on a variety of issues, I would appreciate hearing your experience with the farm bill—what works well for you and what doesn't. If you are having a problem with a certain program or have an idea for reform, now is the time to make your voice heard.

(Josh Rolph is manager of federal policy for the California Farm Bureau Federation. He may be contacted at jrolph@cfbf.com.)

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