By Eric Bohl
Just in time for the new year, Congressional Republicans and Democrats ironed out their differences and agreed upon a new farm bill. Unlike some farm bills in years past, the 2018 version drew broad bipartisan support, passing the Senate 87-13 and the House 369-47. Farm bills typically are only renewed every five years, making each one incredibly important for the agricultural community. In the five years since the last farm bill, net farm income has dropped nearly 50 percent – the largest drop since the Great Depression. The downturn in the farm economy, coupled with uncertainty surrounding international trade made one thing clear: getting this year’s farm bill right was even more critical than normal.
Most agricultural policy professionals view the 2018 farm bill as more of an “evolutionary” bill than a “revolutionary” one. The 2014 farm bill made dramatic changes to the structure of the farm safety net, many of which took several years to settle in and become well-understood. With the 2014 policy changes fairly fresh, Congress did not feel that a wholesale rewriting of farm policy was warranted this time around. The new bill instead focuses more on refining the 2014 provisions than creating new law.
Some of the most important takeaways from the legislation are the things that stay the same. The crop insurance program will remain in place and continue to protect farmers in the event of loss. The Price Loss Coverage (PLC) and Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) programs will be updated and allow producers more flexibility in deciding which one to participate in. Dairy and cotton provisions are maintained and strengthened to help more producers.
Conservation programs are also strengthened in this farm bill. Congress shifted more emphasis to cost-share and incentive-based programs to help farmers improve their soil, water and natural resources. Programs are streamlined and better-coordinated so as to make it as easy as possible to participate in conservation practices. In addition, safeguards were put in place to ensure that farmers are not competing with government payments in order to access land.
Many Americans do not realize that over three-fourths of the farm bill actually funds nutrition programs. Most notable is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. House Republicans had sought to tighten eligibility for the program to encourage able-bodied adults to work in order to participate. After staunch opposition by Congressional Democrats, the final compromise bill provided flexibility for USDA to make changes, but did not add work requirements to the program.
The package included numerous smaller provisions, including one championed by Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler from Missouri. Her language sets a minimum download and upload speed requirement for any USDA-funded broadband projects. This will prevent taxpayer dollars from being wasted on outdated and inadequate technologies.
All members of the Missouri Congressional delegation voted in favor of the bill. Congresswoman Hartzler was unable to vote due to a death in the family, but she served as Missouri’s lone representative on the House Agriculture Committee and was instrumental in crafting the final bill. Missouri Farm Bureau supported final passage of the farm bill.
(Eric Bohl, of Columbia, Mo., is Director of Public Affairs for Missouri Farm Bureau, the state’s largest farm organization.)