EESI will take periodic looks at the ongoing debate surrounding the anticipated 2018 Farm Bill. This article is the first in the series.

Despite no named candidate for Agriculture Secretary, Congress is already thinking about the 2018 Farm Bill, with hearings on the topic expected as early as later this month.  With a Republican-controlled Congress and administration, the majority has a rare opportunity to broadly shape policy and pick legislative priorities.  Rural economies received a lot of attention on the campaign trail, signaling that the Farm Bill is sure to be the focus of many lawmakers this session.   

Amidst a backdrop of plunging commodity prices and a faltering farm economy, Republicans and the administration have vowed to bolster rural economies (and farmers and ranchers in particular) through the rollback of proposed and existing regulations over water, federal lands, endangered species, climate change and others. In the lead up to the Farm Bill, discussions around the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) and the state of the farm safety net (in the form of crop insurance) will likely take center stage.

EESI will be keeping a close eye on conversations and hearings regarding the Conservation and Energy Titles. While relatively minor pieces of the Farm Bill as far as dollars are concerned these two key areas provide significant multiple benefits to the environment and rural economies.


The 2014 Farm Bill

In early 2014, after two years of contentious debate on the Hill, President Obama signed into law the Agricultural Act, or Farm Bill of 2014 (Pub.L. 113-79). The 2014 Farm Bill authorizes $489 billion in spending by USDA through 2018, with 80 percent of outlays funding nutrition programs, eight percent to crop insurance, six percent to conservation, five percent to commodities, and one percent to other programs.

The Farm Bill is an omnibus, meaning it covers numerous legislative packages on diverse topics in a single bill. With 12 titles – the Farm Bill includes nutrition programs (often referred to as food stamps), commodities, conservation, energy, trade, R&D, and rural development.  The diversity of issues also means that legislators with vastly different priorities (from urban, suburban and rural districts) must work together on passing the legislation. 

In the past few years, despite containing mandatory spending levels, Congressional appropriators have continually sought to cut mandatory funding levels to numerous programs through a process known as Changes in Mandatory Program Spending (CHIMPS).  Under a Democratically-controlled administration, Republicans sought to shape policy contained in the Farm Bill, using CHIMPS as a means to challenge the President’s agenda, particularly on climate, energy, and environmental issues. 

While it is anyone’s guess whether a Farm Bill will pass in the 115th Congress, the legislative priorities of both parties remain largely unchanged.


Looking Ahead to 2018 – Crop Insurance Is On Everyone’s Mind

Lawmakers have expressed their own priorities for the next Farm Bill, and to many, the top issue is preserving the farm safety net through crop insurance.  EESI also expects to hear new proposals on how to provide the biggest benefit to both farmers, tax payers and the environment through reforms to crop insurance. 

However, at a time of plunging commodities values and rising land prices, further efforts to reform crop insurance or commodity programs will likely face stiff opposition. In a recent poll of rural residents by news outlet DTN/The Progressive Farmer, 52 percent of respondents strongly or somewhat disagreed that current federal farm programs provide an adequate safety net; only 6 percent felt that farmer protections were adequate.

In the past, lawmakers expressed their view that the agricultural community already did their part to reduce the deficit in the 2014 Farm Bill.  In a moment of reflection, USDA Secretary Vilsack offered some advice for those shaping the 2018 Farm Bill, commenting, “We faced a very difficult challenge with the recent Farm Bill because the conversation started something like this: ‘We’ve got to save $23 billion …That was the first thing out of the box. The powers that be decided that saving money was the most important aspect of the Farm Bill.”

Vilsack emphasized the importance of rural America, stating that the Farm Bill negotiators must ask themselves, “‘What is the need in rural America?’ because rural America is an important place. It’s where we get our food. It impacts our water. It’s our feed stock for our energy sources. It’s where we recreate. It’s our military families and, oh yeah, it gives everybody else in the country the ability to do something other than farming because we’re tremendously productive.”

No matter the outcome of the Farm Bill debate, 2017 will certainly be an interesting year to watch agricultural policy.  At no other point in modern history has there been such an interest from the public in what we eat, who grows it and how, and how that impacts the environment.   


For more information see:

Agriculture and Related Agencies: FY2017 Appropriations, CRS

Departing Vilsack Offering Farm Bill Suggestions, Radio Iowa

Farmers Expect to be Front and Center as Trump Presidency Unfolds, DTN/Progressive Farmer

House Appropriators Seek Deep Cuts to Environmental, Farm and Renewable Energy Programs, EESI