Farm bill compromise:

Take what you can get

The farm bill is nearly enacted, with the House approving the conference committee report May 2 and the Senate approving it May 8. That leaves many groups to lament what might have been. Some family farm advocates fear that it will finish them off. Environmentalists complain that it encourages overproduction. Urban pundits grumble about all that money going to the heartland, with New Yorkers noting that George W. Bush is willing to spend $180 billion on agriculture after reneging on his promise to send $20 billion to rebuild Lower Manhattan. And the European Union threatens a trade war. But don't blame Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, who did a good job with Majority Leader Tom Daschle in getting the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 through the politically polarized Senate and then working out a compromise with House conferees.

The bill rejects the market-oriented farm policy of the 1996 Freedom to Farm law, which was supposed to wean farmers from government supports. Unfortunately that came at the same time free trade was opening US borders to competition from foreign food products.

The new farm bill increases agriculture spending by $73.5 billion over the next 10 years. Existing programs are expected to cost about $107 billion over the same period. Family farm advocates complain that the higher limits on payments to farmers ($360,000 in the final version instead of $275,000 which the Senate called for) will send more money to bigger operators and force smaller farmers out of business. And loopholes will allow many corporate farmers to skirt even that generous cap. Rice and cotton planters in the South, who gain the most from those payments, succeeded in getting the House Republicans to raise the limits.

Harkin said the average 1,000-acre farm in Iowa planted in corn and soybeans would receive $84,000 in government subsidy payments under the compromise farm bill, or $10,000 more than under current law. (That doesn't meant they'll clear $84,000.) As the Des Moines Register noted, when multiplied by the thousands of farms in Iowa over the next six to 10 years that infusion of cash will provide jobs for farm-equipment makers and put money into the cash registers of local merchants.

The bill also does good work increasing spending on conservation programs. Harkin's new Conservation Security Program provides $2 billion to reward farmers for practicing good stewardship on working land, instead of forcing them to retire land to receive conservation payments. But it also expands the Conservation Reserve Program to retire highly erodible lands, from 36.4 million to 39.2 million acres, and a pilot program for wetlands expands to 1 million acres at an additional cost of $1.5 billion. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program increases by $9 billion, with 60% going to livestock producers to improve compliance with environmental laws.

The bill also earmarks $1 billion for rural development projects such as assistance for rural water systems and broadband communications access as well as grants to assist producer-owned businesses, regional investment boards, rural business investment and rural firefighters and emergency personnel.

The nutrition title provides $6.4 billion in assistance for low-income people. Among the features, it restores food stamps to noncitizens who have lived in the country for five years.

The American Corn Growers Association gave the new farm bill an overall failing grade and worked against its passage, but President Keith Dittrich, a corn farmer from Tilden Neb., did not fault the Senate Democrats. "We ... watched the Senate leadership fight a lonely fight for more significant gains in price support policy, payments limits and a ban on packer ownership. However, they were opposed at nearly every turn by the Senate Republican leadership, most of the House Conferees, the administration, and the agribusiness lobby. If nothing else, this farm bill debate had made clear who stands with family farm producers, and who stands against them."

The National Farmers Union, which represents grassroots family farmers and ranchers, also supported payment limits to ensure that federal program benefits were more targeted to family farming operations, but in a letter to Congress members NFU President Dave Frederickson said farmers couldn't afford to wait any longer for farm legislation. Most are already well into their planting season and need the certainty and the resources the compromise bill offers.

Frederickson noted that for the first time since 1981 the bill provides higher marketing loan rates (setting a minimum market price of commodities). It improved the nationwide safety net for dairy producers. It requires country-of-origin labeling for meats, fruits, vegetables, fish and peanuts. It requires that US-labeled foods be from plants and animals born, raised and processed in America. It prohibits farm benefits to the wealthiest landowners and Fortune 500 companies. It increases conservation and rural development funding. It includes a new Conservation Security Program for working lands.

For the first time, the farm bill has an energy provision that encourages on-farm efficiency gains and renewable energy investment, and promotes development of fuels and products from renewable agricultural products. Critics noted that more than $20 million per year will go to bioenergy producers who buy agricultural products as raw materials for the production of fuel ethanol and biodiesel. Archer-Daniels-Midland will get a large share of that subsidy, but smaller producers at least get a shot at it too.

The conference committee removed the Senate's ban on meatpackers owning livestock, as well as natural disaster assistance for crop and livestock losses suffered by producers in 2001, the targeting of farm program benefits to family farmers, and normalizing agricultural trade with Cuba.

Republicans were determined to deny Democratic senators a legislative victory --particularly those Midwestern Democrats who are up for re-election, including South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson, Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, Missouri Sen. Jean Carnahan and Harkin. The White House has actively tried to undermine those senators, which makes the passage of a compromise farm bill with some moderately progressive attributes a tribute to Harkin, Daschle and their colleagues.

Harkin said the farm bill was "a product we can be proud of," meeting the four objectives he set out to accomplish: a strong safety net through payments tied to market conditions, heftier conservation payments, enhanced rural economic development, and new markets for agricultural products.

The farm bill may seem of little interest to city dwellers, but US Rep. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., reminded during the House debate that preserving family farms is a national security issue. "The road ahead for family agriculture is not going to be an easy one. But farmers will not have to fight it alone. There are millions and millions of Americans who do not live on farms or in rural communities who understand the value --from a national security standpoint, from an environmental standpoint, from an economic standpoint, from a consumer standpoint --of decentralized, family-based agriculture in the country. They will be your allies. At the same time, farmers have to realize that the corporate, agribusiness interests are the opponents of family-based agriculture. They need to be cut loose so that, for example when they want outrageous free trade agreements that allow them to purchase agricultural products overseas at a fraction of the US price, family farmers all over this country stand up and say no. It will be a tough fight but together we can reshape American agriculture for the better."

The 2002 farm bill, if a disappointment to some, is at least a turn toward the right direction. -- JMC

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