What is the Farm Bill?
The farm bill connects the food on our plates, the farmers and ranchers who produce that food, and the natural resources – our soil, air and water – that make growing food possible.
In the simplest terms, the farm bill has a tremendous impact on farming livelihoods, how food is grown, and what kinds of foods are grown. This in turn affects the environment, local economies, and public health. These are some pretty good reasons to become involved in advocating for a farm bill that supports health and sustainability!
Through programs covering everything from crop insurance for farmers to healthy food access for low-income families, from beginning farmer training to support for sustainable farming practices, this powerful package of laws sets the course of our food and farming system – in good ways and bad. It’s our job to make sure the farm bill reflects what our country’s farmers and eaters need for a sustainable future.
Every five years, the farm bill expires and is updated: proposed, debated, and passed by Congress and then signed into law by the President. (The current farm bill, The Agricultural Act of 2014, was signed into law on February 7th, 2014.)
The farm bill got its start in 1933 as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation. Its three original goals – to keep food prices fair for farmers and consumers, ensure an adequate food supply, and protect and sustain the country’s vital natural resources – responded to the economic and environmental crises of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Although the farm bill has changed in the last 70 years, its primary purposes are the same.
Our food and farming system confronts new challenges today, but through citizen and stakeholder action for a fair farm bill, we can ensure the vibrancy and productivity of our agriculture, economy, and communities for generations to come.
Farm Bill Basics
1. What does the farm bill cover?
The farm bill’s sections are called titles. The 2014 Farm Bill has twelve titles.
Here’s what they’re called (and what they cover):
- Title 1: Commodities. The Commodities Title covers price and income supports for the farmers who raise widely-produced and traded crops, like corn, soybeans, wheat, and rice – as well as dairy and sugar.
- Title 2: Conservation. The Conservation Title covers programs that help farmers implement natural resource conservation efforts on working lands like pasture and cropland, land retirement programs, and easement programs. The title also includes resource conservation requirements for participation in commodity and crop insurance programs and helps institutions and community organizations provide farmers with conservation technical assistance.
- Title 3: Trade. The Trade Title covers food exports and international food aid programs.
- Title 4: Nutrition. The Nutrition Title covers the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP] – also known as food stamps – as well as a variety of smaller nutrition programs to help low-income Americans afford food for their families.
- Title 5: Credit. The Credit Title covers federal loan programs designed to help farmers access the financial credit (via direct loans as well as loan guarantees and other tools) they need to grow and sustain their farming operations.
- Title 6: Rural Development. The Rural Development Title covers programs that help foster rural economic growth through rural business and community development (including farm businesses), housing, and infrastructure improvement.
- Title 7: Research, Extension, and Related Matters. The Research Title covers farming and food research, education, and extension programs designed to support innovation, from state university-affiliated research to vital training for the next generation of farmers and ranchers.
- Title 8: Forestry. The Forestry Title covers forest-specific conservation, creating incentives and programs that help farmers and rural communities to be stewards of forest resources.
- Title 9: Energy. The Energy Title covers programs that encourage growing and processing crops for biofuel; help farmers, ranchers and business owners install renewable energy systems; and support research related to energy.
- Title 10: Specialty Crops & Horticulture. The term “specialty crops” refers to fruits, vegetables, nuts, and nursery crops, including organic produce. This title covers farmers market and local food programs, funding for research and infrastructure specific to those “specialty crops”, and organic research and certification programs.
- Title 11: Crop Insurance. The Crop Insurance Title provides premium subsidies to farmers and subsidies to the private crop insurance companies who provide federal crop insurance to farmers, as well as providing USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) with the authority to research, develop, and modify a variety of crop- and revenue-based insurance policies.
- Title 12: Miscellaneous. The Miscellaneous Title brings together advocacy and outreach programs for beginning, socially disadvantaged, and veteran farmers and ranchers; agricultural labor safety and workforce development; and livestock health.
2. How much does the farm bill cost?
The 2014 Farm Bill is projected to cost about $489 billion over the five years of the bill’s life, according to the USDA Economic Research Service using data from the Congressional Budget Office, Cost Estimates for the Agricultural Act of 2014, January 2014.
While all of the farm bill funding numbers are projections, some are more firm projections than others. The costs of the bill’s three major groups of entitlement programs – the commodity, crop insurance, and SNAP (food stamp) programs – depend on what happens in the commodity markets and the general economy over the coming five years. Therefore, actual costs could be higher or lower than the projections.
3. Who in Congress writes the farm bill?
Members of Congress who sit on the Senate and House Committees on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry hold the primary responsibility of drafting farm bills.
4. How does the farm bill process work?
There are four main phases of the farm bill process, from drafting the new legislation to putting the programs into effect on the ground. Here’s how it works:
First: The Reauthorization phase, in which a new farm bill is written and passed into law approximately every five years.
It all begins with hearings (in Washington, DC and across the country) – these are listening sessions where members of Congress take input from the public about what they want to see in a new bill.
- AGRICULTURAL COMMITTEES
House and Senate Agriculture Committees each draft, debate, “mark up” (amend and change), and eventually pass a bill; the two committees work on separate bills that can have substantial differences.
- FULL CONGRESS / “THE FLOOR”
Each committee bill goes next to “the floor” – the full House of Representatives or Senate. Each bill is debated, amended, and voted on again by its respective body (House or Senate).
- CONFERENCE COMMITTEE
After both the full House and Senate have passed a farm bill – which can take a while, and may require a bill being sent back to committee for more work before passage! – the two bills (House and Senate) go to a smaller group of Senators and Representatives called a “conference committee,” which combines the two separate bills into one compromise package. Conferees are typically chosen mostly from House and Senate Agriculture Committee members.
- FULL CONGRESS / “THE FLOOR”
The combined version of the conference committee’s farm bill then goes back to the House and Senate floors to be debated – and potentially passed.
- LAST STEP: THE WHITE HOUSE
Once the House and Senate approve a final farm bill, the bill goes to the President, who can veto it (and send it back to Congress) or sign it into law!
Once the farm bill is signed into law, it’s time for the Appropriations phase: setting money aside in the yearly federal budget to fund the programs in the farm bill.
Some programs are written into the farm bill with mandatory money – meaning it comes to them automatically every year; other programs have discretionary money – meaning agriculture appropriators must decide each year how much funding (if any) to award a program.
[Though the farm bill expires and is reauthorized every 5 years or so, appropriations takes place each year. The farm bill includes language specifying authorized, or allowed, funding for each year the bill is in place – but authorized funding isn’t the same as appropriated funding. The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Program, for example, has been authorized at $60 million per year since it was first introduced in 1985, but has not yet been funded above $25 million per year.]
- 1. First, the president’s budget request is sent to Congressional budget committees for their consideration. The committees each draft their own budget resolutions, and then pass a combined budget.
- 2. Next, the process moves to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, responsible for determining program-by-program funding levels across all areas of the US budget.
- 3. Within the House and Senate Appropriations Committees are Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittees – the people responsible for designating farm, food, and rural development program funding. The Subcommittees get input for their funding decisions in a few ways:
- by holding public hearings and inviting testimony from experts and agencies
- by requesting and considering funding requests from all non-committee legislators and staff;
- by meeting with constituents and advocates of programs to discuss funding priorities.
- 4. From this input, the subcommittee staff puts together a proposed agriculture appropriations bill that the subcommittee will vote on. Once passed by the subcommittee, these bills are submitted to the full Appropriations Committees, generally in the summer or fall, where they go through another round of review and changes (called “markup”).
- 5. Much like with the farm bill, differences in House and Senate appropriations bills get sorted out via a small group of legislators called the conference committee, which has an October 1st deadline each year. When a compromise is made, a final bill emerges, and is signed into law by the President. Because budgeting is such contentious business, this deadline is not often met, in which case “continuing resolutions” are passed to maintain existing funding levels.
Happening concurrently with the annual appropriations process is rulemaking. After Congress passes a farm bill, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is charged with writing the actual rules for how these programs will be implemented on the ground. This phase is called Administration (or Rulemaking).
Wins for sustainable agriculture in the farm bill require vigilant attention during this phase to ensure that programs are implemented in a way that reflects the intent of Congress – and of the farmers and advocates who helped shape the bill!
- 1. Advocates and experts check in with agency staff at USDA, track the status of particular programs, and share their input.
- 2. Grassroots individuals have a major role to play during this stage, by commenting on USDA’s proposed rules for farm bill programs.
- 3. Proposed agency rules are published in the Federal Register and are usually open for public comment from 30-90 days. When rules are posted, NSAC and its member groups will provide example comments that grassroots individuals can use in formulating their own responses.
And always, when program funding is appropriated and rules are set in place for implementation, it’s time for outreach and evaluation!
Here is the true test of program success: do farmers, ranchers, and grassroots organizations use the program? Does the program accomplish its goals and reach the people it is meant to reach on the ground? Is it having an impact?
At this phase, grassroots organizations and USDA both promote funding opportunities, requests for grant proposals, and sign-ups for programs. Spreading the word is important to make sure everyone hears about programs and can access the information needed to participate.
And following up on the successes and challenges of specific farm bill programs is another key step in improving our food and farming system. By sharing evaluation and feedback on farm bill programs, farmers and constituents give lawmakers and agencies the information they need to fix any problems in the bill, and to work towards building a better farm bill for everyone.