The Goldilocks Farm Bill

This Business of Farming

Some people love it, some people hate it – so maybe it's just right

Published on: February 13, 2014

Maybe I'm getting old, but when the first "deadline" to renew the farm bill came along in 2012, I laughed. And ignored it.

Like a Pavlovian dog, I've been conditioned by repetitious behavior. Deadlines? Come now. That only happens in the real world. Over the past three farm bill cycles we've yet to see one get passed on a real deadline. Only when congressmen suddenly discover that milk prices might go through the roof, and even then, what did we get these past 500 days? Delays. Re-authorization of the old bill.

But now we have a new bill. Boehner didn't like it; Cantor didn't like it; but they supported it. President Obama initially didn't like it, but he signed it.

The non-profit food bank Feeding America decried the bill saying it would result in more hungry. On the opposite side, Republican budget hawks decried the bill because, well, food stamp spending has gone from $17 billion in 2000 to $80 billion in 2014.

In all the post-signing declarations you'd have thought our leaders had been forced at gunpoint to vote this bill into law. Yet, the bill is signed and sealed. Not too hot, not too cold. Just right.

I believe the dysfunctional nature of Congress actually helped pass this farm bill, which is in all aspects very good for commercial farmers, the folks who put a vast majority of our food on tables worldwide.

Just recall the mighty outbursts of criticism lo those many months ago when the announcements were made that the farm bill needed to be re-authorized. One group after another came along to deride the policies and declare the need for reforms. We had zany ideas like splitting the farm bill and removing the permanent extension provisions. We had people connecting America's obesity problem with corn farmers and thus, farm subsidies. Yes, it was the evil government subsidy that made you eat that extra taco. Free Will be damned!

But our congress was way too preoccupied with bickering, sequestration and shutdowns to actually push any of the special interest group "reforms" through.

Meanwhile, in the back hallways, farm interests, especially those involved in crop insurance, were making a case for a sensible horse trade: dump the direct payments and put that money towards federally-subsidized crop insurance. Now we have a new program to cover “shallow losses,” or losses incurred by farmers but not covered currently by crop insurance. Further, the bill restricts the ability of USDA to renegotiate lower payments to crop insurers during the term of the law.

In the end, farmers should feel pretty good about their ag organizations and lobbyists. In some ways the farm bill showed that the middle is alive and that dysfunction can be corrected be working towards the middle. True definition of compromise is not everyone is happy, but they’ve got something they can live with.

At last winter's USDA Outlook conference Joe Glauber, the agency's Chief Ag Economist, said this: "If you look at the budget problems we're under, I don't see where having very large budgets for agriculture are sustainable. I think that will be pressured, and I think we will see significant cuts in agriculture budgets as we move forward."

Nearly a trillion dollars later, Glauber now has to eat those words. They probably don't taste as good as Goldilocks' porridge.