The 2018 farm bill is just over the horizon – field hearings could start next winter, maybe earlier if commodity prices are frozen at low levels – and the farm bill coalition is linking its arms in readiness. In an exercise that doubled as a warm-up for the new farm bill, the informal alliance united to protect USDA programs from budget cuts this spring, even in programs outside its usual area of interest. As a result, the American Soybean Association (ASA) defended the food stamp program against a proposed 20% cut in funding.
“As we approach discussions of the next farm bill, we have to stand together as a food community,” says ASA president Richard Wilkins. “This partnership is critically important for those of us in production agriculture, since only 60 or 70 members of the House identify themselves as representing rural districts.”
In an outburst of enthusiasm for spending cuts, the House defeated the farm bill in 2013. It was the first time a farm bill failed on a floor vote. Budget hawks saw the chance to split the bill in two and whittle down the pieces. In the end, it was a temporary setback, but the memory remains vivid among the farm bill coalition, which crosses the spectrum of interests from farmers, outdoors enthusiasts, conservationists, environmentalists, and exporters to antihunger activists and rural lenders. Continued pressure for budget austerity could make the 2018 farm bill a target for deep cuts.
Jim Weill of the antihunger Food Research and Action Center says the coalition is an example of strength in numbers and diversity. “For decades, we’ve had important federal nutrition programs side by side with important rural development, ag research, and farm support programs, and that has been important to nutrition,” he says.
The common maxim is that by linking farm subsidies and food assistance, the farm bill appeals to both rural and urban lawmakers.
For now, the easiest and strongest line of defense by the coalition is opposition to reopening the 2014 farm bill, which was projected to save nearly $17 billion. “We made our deal. It was a five-year deal,” says Roger Johnson, National Farmers Union (NFU) president. The unbroken line of opposition to program or spending cuts leaves no opening for attacks on crop insurance just as it stoutly defends public nutrition programs.
It also blocks farm-state lawmakers from helping cotton growers, who say their new support program, a part of the 2014 farm law, has failed them miserably amid a global cotton glut.
House Agriculture chair Michael Conaway (R-TX) launched a series of six hearings this spring. “I am increasingly concerned about the direction the farm economy is headed,” he says. “It is more important than ever that we protect the farm bill” and crop insurance.
“The big issue for the next farm bill will be, is the safety net really working for farmers?” says Johnson. “We have a lot of folks who are beginning to struggle financially.”