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.

The farm bill is a package of legislation passed roughly once every five years that has a tremendous impact on farming livelihoods, how food is grown, and what kinds of foods are grown. Covering programs ranging from crop insurance for farmers to healthy food access for low-income families, from beginning farmer training to support for sustainable farming practices, the farm bill sets the stage for our food and farm systems. As a leading advocate for family farmers and sustainable agriculture, it’s our job to make sure that this important bill is good for farmers, consumers, and for the natural environment.

Every five years, the farm bill expires and is updated: it goes through an extensive process where it is proposed, debated, and passed by Congress and is then signed into law by the President. Each farm bill has a unique title, and the current farm bill is called the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018. It was enacted into law in December 2018 and expires in 2023.

The original farm bill(s) were enacted in three stages during the 1930s 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. While the farm bill has changed in the last 70 years, its primary goals 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?
  2. WHO IN CONGRESS WRITES THE FARM BILL?
  3. WHAT ISN’T IN THE FARM BILL?
  4. HOW MUCH DOES THE FARM BILL COST?
  5. HOW DOES THE FARM BILL PROCESS WORK?
  6. FARM BILL WEBINARS

1. What does the farm bill cover?

The farm bill’s chapters are called titles. The numbers and the substance matter of the titles can change over time.  The 2018 Farm Bill, for instance, has twelve titles.

Here’s what they’re called (and what they cover):

Title 1: Commodities.  The Commodities title covers price and income support for the farmers who raise widely-produced and traded non-perishable crops, like corn, soybeans, wheat, and rice – as well as dairy and sugar. The title also includes agricultural disaster assistance.
Title 2: Conservation.  The Conservation title covers programs that help farmers implement natural resource conservation efforts on working lands like pasture and cropland as well as land retirement and easement programs.  
Title 3: Trade. The Trade title covers food export subsidy programs and international food aid programs.
Title 4: Nutrition.  The Nutrition title covers the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP] (formerly 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) as well as rural housing, and infrastructure.
Title 7: Research, Extension, and Related Matters.  The Research title covers farm and food research, education, and extension programs designed to support innovation, from federal labs and 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 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: Horticulture. The Horticulture title covers farmers market and local food programs, funding for research and infrastructure for fruits, vegetables and other horticultural crops, and organic farming 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 to protect against losses in yield, crop revenue, or whole farm revenue. The title also provides USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) with the authority to research, develop, and modify insurance policies.
Title 12: Miscellaneous.  The Miscellaneous title is a bit of a catch-all.  The current title brings together six advocacy and outreach areas, including beginning, socially disadvantaged, and veteran farmers and ranchers, agricultural labor safety and workforce development, and livestock health.

2. 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.

3. What is not included in the farm bill?

While the Farm Bill covers a swath of key agricultural policy topics, there are some policy areas that are not included, such as: 

  • Farm and food worker rights and protections
  • Public land grazing rights
  • Irrigation water rights 
  • Food and Drug Administration (FDA) food safety 
  • Renewable fuels standards 
  • Tax issues 
  • School meals 
  • The Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program 
  • Some pesticide Laws 
  • Clean Water Act
  • Clean Air Act

While these issues are directly related to agriculture, they are not included in the farm bill because they fall outside of the jurisdiction of the Agriculture Committees and are instead considered under the jurisdiction of other committees. For example, Farmworker Rights and Protections fall under the jurisdiction of the House Education and Labor Committee and Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. 

4. How much does the farm bill cost?

The 2018 Farm Bill is projected to cost about $428 billion over the five years of the bill’s life, according to the estimates from the Congressional Budget Office.

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 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.

Source: USDA Economic Research Service Based on Congressional Budget Office, Direct Spending Effects for the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (2018 Farm Bill), December 11, 2018

Less than five billion of the $428 billion projected for the 2018 farm bill is allocated for programs that fit under the “Other” category, which includes many vital programs such as the Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP), the Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach (FOTO) program, Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), and the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program (SCBGP).

5. 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:

REAUTHORIZATION

First: The Reauthorization phase, in which a new farm bill is written and passed into law approximately every five years. 

  • HEARINGS
    Legislatively, 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!

APPROPRIATIONS

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. Rather than a calendar year, the federal government operates on a fiscal year from October 1st to September 30th.  

Some farm bill programs – called entitlements – are written in such a way that their funding is guaranteed  with ‘mandatory money’ that will automatically support the program every year. An example of an entitlement program is the Supplemental Nutrition Access Program (SNAP). Other programs are authorized but funded through discretionary spending – meaning agriculture appropriators must decide each year how much funding (if any) to award a program. Because of budgetary constraints, not every program can be structured as an entitlement and generally it is much easier to include new programs in the farm bill if they are subject to appropriations.   

Though the farm bill expires and is reauthorized every 5 years or so, the appropriations process takes place each year. The farm bill includes language that authorizes programs and sets the maximum funding levels for each program for the years covered by the farm bill. However, authorized funding isn’t the same as appropriated funding and appropriators may choose to provide funding well below the maximum amount that was authorized. 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 $37 million per year.

1. First, the president’s budget proposing how funding should be allocated to various federal programs is sent to Congress for their consideration. The House and Senate budget committees then draft and negotiate a concurrent budget resolution. The concurrent budget resolution provides appropriations committees with a framework for making funding decisions and sets a ceiling on how much funding is available to the appropriations committees for determining which programs receive discretionary funding. 

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 Government. Oftentimes, appropriators use the President’s budget as a starting point for negotiations and decisions, but very rarely do they simply accept the president’s recommendations. 

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 legislators and staff (both on and off committee);
  •  And 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 review and make changes (aka amendments), and approve the bill through a process called “markup”. Once passed by the subcommittee, these bills are submitted to the full Appropriations Committees, where they go through another round of review and changes – “full committee markup”.

5. Once a bill has been marked up by the full Appropriations Committee, following subcommittee markup, the bill is brought to the full floor of the respected chamber of Congress for consideration. During the full floor passage, members of Congress can also make further changes to the bill, via amendments, prior to final passage.  

6. 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. Legislators have until the end of the fiscal year (11:59 pm September 30th) to reconcile their chamber’s respective bills, write a single compromise bill, and pass it on the full floor of both the House and the Senate. After Congressional passage, the bill is sent to the White House and is signed into law by the President. Because the appropriations process is such a contentious process, this deadline is not often met, and lawmakers must then pass a “continuing resolution”, which maintains existing funding levels from the previous fiscal year so as to prevent a government shutdown. 

RULEMAKING

Happening concurrently with the annual appropriations process is rulemaking. After Congress passes a farm bill, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is responsible for 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 the rules implement programs in a way that reflects the intent of Congress – and of the farmers and advocates who helped shape the bill!

  • Advocates and experts check in with agency staff at USDA, track the status of particular programs, and share their input.
  • Grassroots individuals have a major role to play during this stage, by commenting on USDA’s proposed rules for farm bill programs.
  • 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.

OUTREACH AND EVALUATION

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.

6. Farm Bill 101 Webinars 

In 2017, NSAC co-hosted several webinars in partnership with the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group to take a deeper look at some of the programmatic areas of the farm bill and identify ways one can become involved in “agvocacy!” You can view the webinar playlist here.