How the Biggest Part of the FARM BILL has Become Hidden from View

The FARM BILL is often described as a huge omnibus thing that you’re never really going to understand. There’s truth in that. I’ve done some time on the “wonk” side of things, and I know. I wrote two training manuals on issues of the Commodity Title and the CONSERVATION Title, and used them in training of staff at Iowa CCI, and in meetings with FSA and farmers. I also know that there are “the wonk’s wonks,” and on up the chain of complexity. On the other hand, this view, this kind of definition mystifies and de-powers us.

Another common way of explaining the Farm Bill is in terms of a pie chart of Farm Bill spending. This is a dominant paradigm today. I call it the “Visible Farm Bill.” Really though, spending, the Visible Farm Bill, should be understood as only part of the Farm Bill, and in fact, it’s the smaller part.

These two categories can provide to the Sustainable Food Movement a simple way of understanding the Farm Bill. There are really two main parts to the “farmer” part of the farm bill: 1. market management, and 2. supplemental provisions. (I’ll discuss the NUTRITION Title farther below.)

Market management is the bigger part of the farmer side of the Farm Bill, historically, ideally, and as measured by it’s absence from what’s called the Farm Bill today. Market management refers to management of the supply and price of farm products. It’s been needed in the Farm Bill for at least 150 years because farm crops, especially grains and oilseeds, cotton and DAIRY, “lack price responsiveness” (http://agpolicy.org/weekcol/248.html) “on both the supply and the demand sides for aggregate agriculture.” (http://agpolicy.org/weekcol/325.html) That means that in unregulated (deregulated) ‘free’ markets, farm prices are usually very low, even below the cost of production. The Farm Bill has fixed this economic problem by helping farmers to cut back on production, as needed to balance supply and demand, and then to use Price Floors, to help farmers get fair prices. Price Floors are not subsidies, and are usually the opposite of subsidies in their impacts. They’re like minimum wage.

The farmer part of the Farm Bill, (when we have a real farm bill,) isn’t just for farmers. It’s for the good of everyone. For one thing market management also includes Price Ceilings to trigger the release onto the market of Reserve Supplies during rare times of excessively high prices. This protects consumers, LIVESTOCK interests, and other buyers of all kinds, all along the food chain.

Unfortunately, under corporate pressure, Congress reduced, (1953-1995) and eliminated (1995-2018) farm bill price and supply management. Farmers fought back against this “cheap food,” cheap corn, cheap cotton, cheap milk, etc. In response, Congress continued to reduce Price Floors, but added subsidies, to quiet down angry farmers. With subsidies, however, farmers have continued to get less than what they used to get (reduced prices + subsidies per unit = net reductions).

Cheap food and cheap farm products, (from reducing and eliminating market management,) have contributed to a large number of major problems. They’ve provided extremely cheap ingredients for junk food, and feeds for unsustainable CAFOs, as the United States, the dominate farm exporter, has lost money on exports, (export dumping,) that, at the same time, have run farmers out of business all across the world, causing rural poverty and hunger.

Many problems have been addressed with Farm Bill market management, and many more could be. That means that we can fix things without much spending money. (Early Farm Bills made money for the government, as farmers paid interest on Price Floor loans, for example.) Others cannot. That’s why there is Farm Bill spending to address a variety of needs. Unfortunately, as Farm Bill market management has been reduced and eliminated, many of these needs have been made worse, starting with the need for farmers to earn an income. Other problems include reductions in Resource Conserving Crop Rotations, (as CAFOs took over the livestock industry,) air and water pollution from those CAFOs. Rural poverty has also been fostered, both in the US and globally, creating a greater need for spending on Rural Development and Food Aid.

Food Subsidies, (originally Food Stamps,) and similar programs of the Nutrition Title are similar to farm subsidies. They’re in the farm bill, and there are contentious arguments about the money spent on them. There are also important market management components on this consumer side, but most of these are not in the Farm Bill, and not under the jurisdiction of the agricultural committees that make the Farm Bill. These include minimum wage standards, such as LIVING WAGE, labor laws, and full employment policies and programs. With a living wage, much less money is needed for food subsidies.

It’s crucial that the lexicon of the farm bill de-mystify it, bringing the Hidden Farm Bill, (market management,) back out into the open. The problems of the Farm Bill can’t be solved by considering only the Visible Farm Bill.

The FARM BILL has also had market management for vegetables and fruits. These are perishable farm products, like DAIRY, and market management has been handled differently for them than for storable crops, like grains. As in the case of dairy, this this has been handled through Market Order programs. According to Douglas Bowers et al, in “History of Agricultural Price-Support and Adjustment Programs, 1933-84,” (https://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/pub-details/?pubid=41994) these kinds of “Marketing agreements raised producer prices by controlling the timing and the volume of the commodity marketed.” “Regulations for other commodities (primarily fruits, vegetables, and tree nuts) approached the problem of producers’ prices indirectly. Quantity, quality, and rate of shipment to market could be controlled, and prices received by producers were indirectly affected.” These programs also need to be fixed. This kind of supply management can provide vegetables and fruits to other USDA programs, such as those of the NUTRITION title.

Further Reading

See these articles from APAC.

“Clever money delivery systems,” December 29, 2006, #334, http://agpolicy.org/weekcol/334.html.

“Johanns’ ‘facts’ divert attention from agriculture’s root policy problem?,” October 13, 2006, # 323, http://agpolicy.org/weekcol/323.html.

“Johanns’ ’60 percent of farmers do not receive payments’—A case of correct answer to the wrong question?” October 20, 2006, #324, http://agpolicy.org/weekcol/324.html.

See data at slideshare.net:

Vimeo Video link: Defining the Farm Bill is a Political Act


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