Farm Bill expiration abandons farmers

The 2014 Farm Bill expired on Sunday, stranding nearly 40 programs and compounding the uncertainty in farm country. Congress did not pass an extension of the bill, and now, they are unlikely to revisit the Farm Bill until after harvest and the midterm elections. This situation highlights the growing disconnect between Washington and what’s happening on the ground with farmers and the rural economy. Farmers are dealing with multiple years of commodity prices below the cost of production, rising debt, market chaos linked to the Trump administration’s trade fights and growing risks from climate change. Irresponsibly allowing the Farm Bill to expire increases the uncertainty that farmers are facing.

Some major programs in the Farm Bill such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commodity programs and crop insurance are permanently authorized and will continue as usual, but programs without permanently authorized funding will be frozen. Over $1 billion in conservation funding is frozen, and farmers may be unable to sign up for next year’s contracts, making it harder for them to plan. This uncertainty and loss of conservation dollars comes at a time when farmers need support more than ever. More than 30 other programs, including specialty crop programs, local and regional food systems programs and beginning farmers programs are also frozen until Congress passes a new Farm Bill.  

Despite these high stakes, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) remarked that, "The world doesn't end if we don't reach an agreement," claiming that as long as an extension is passed by December, things will be fine. This out of touch statement stands in stark contrast to what is happening in farm country. At a session among farm advocates before Farm Aid in September, farm crisis hotline staffers discussed the rising number of phone calls and meetings with farmers losing their operations and some committing suicide. The economic pressures are becoming too much for some farmers, and neither the House nor Senate Farm Bills under consideration reflect an urgency to address the problems in agriculture.

The House bill, written mostly behind closed doors by Agriculture Chairman Michael Conaway (R-TX), is especially brutal. It creates onerous new work requirements that would prevent nearly 2 million people from accessing SNAP benefits. Rural parts of the country have a higher rate of SNAP participation than urban, according to research by the Food Research and Action Center; 15 percent of rural households have participated in the program. The House bill also would eliminate the Conservation Stewardship Program (the nation’s most popular working lands conservation program), the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), and several rural development and local foods programs. These programs provide much-needed assistance in this farm economy, especially for the small and medium farms that primarily utilize these programs.

The Senate bill avoids the disaster of the House’s, but is still largely a status quo Farm Bill, leaving much to be desired. Importantly, the Senate Farm Bill does improve some conservation and crop insurance programs and doesn’t drastically change the SNAP program (see the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition analysis for details comparing the two bills).

Most significantly, neither the House or Senate version are willing to face the fundamental problems facing farmers and rural communities. Neither proposes solutions to address the price problems facing farmers, nor the damaging effects of corporate concentration in agriculture, nor the rising challenges posed by climate change, nor the need to transition toward a more sustainable agriculture system that protects our soil and water. These challenges translate to crisis on-the-ground; multi-generational farmers are losing their operations, some are taking their lives, and there’s a palpable anxiety among those who depend on farming for a living.

Congress is writing a Farm Bill as if agriculture in the U.S. is doing fine—but farmers and farm advocates are feeling and hearing very different stories. Letting the Farm Bill expire was irresponsible, and Congress should do everything it can to ensure the new Farm Bill supports resilience, fair prices and stability to assist farmers through this tumultuous time.