Farm Bill Impacts Extend Beyond Farm Gate

By Steve Nelson
Nebraska Farm Bureau President

The U.S. Senate advanced its version of the 2012 Farm Bill this week. For Nebraskan’swho don’t make their living raising crops or livestock the discussion surrounding the measure’s passage may seem to be of little interest.

Discussion of agriculture safety nets, crop insurance and farm program payments are probably foreign to some, yet the impacts of the farm bill reach far beyond the farm gate and affect many Nebraskans who are generations removed from tilling the soil or raising livestock.

For others, the discussion about the farm bill may bring a different connotation, one defined by the use of tax dollars to subsidize farming operations. While there are many opinions about the farm bill – positive, negative or indifferent – the reality is it touches many of us in ways we may have never thought about before.

Using the term “farm bill” to reference federal farm, food and nutrition legislation is somewhat misleading given the title does little to reflect its primary mission. Today’s farm bill has a lot more to do with individual food assistance and a lot less to do with farm programs.

More than 80 percent of total farm bill spending in the Senate version is targeted for non-farm, food and nutrition. The Senate bill allocates $768 billion of the $969 billion in total farm bill spending for food stamps under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and other nutrition programs such as free and reduced school lunches.

In 2011, more than $256 million came to Nebraska through the SNAP program alone. USDA made another $72 million available to Nebraska for free and reduced school lunch, breakfast and summer food programs. Despite bearing the “farm bill” title, only the remaining 20 percent of total farm bill dollars go toward farm programs that directly touch farmers and private landowners.

While the percentage of farm bill dollars targeted to farmers is relatively small, those funds are important to Nebraska agriculture and ultimately our state’s economy. Nebraska has avoided the recessionary pitfalls that have plagued so many other states and has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country due our state’s agricultural base.

Of particular interest in this go-round of farm bill deliberations is the underlying recognition that a reduction in overall farm bill spending is needed to help address our nation’s growing federal deficit. Reducing spending lies at the heart of fundamental changes in this version of the farm bill, particularly as it relates to farm programs. Both farm and nutritional programs are being cut, the later seeing the lesser of the reductions.

Since the start of farm bill deliberations Farm Bureau has noted that farmers are willing to do their part to be a part of the federal budget solution.

That solution includes eliminating the existing annual direct payment program for farmers in favor of a program that uses crop insurance and revenue loss protection as the foundation of a safety net to help farmers when needed. The change would translate to the elimination of roughly $300 million a year in direct payments that come to Nebraska through the current program.

While that may seem like a blow to Nebraska’s economy, agriculture has remained strong and long-term we believe it’s more fiscally responsible to have a farm program that encourages farmers to follow market signals rather than making farm decisions in anticipation of government payments. This latest version of the farm bill moves in that direction.

While Farm Bureau supports the elimination of direct payments, it continues to support having a safety net for farmers, one that includes a strong crop insurance program. The floods of 2011 and the on-set of drought conditions in 2012 are real examples of the risks of farming and why a safety net is needed when Mother Nature endangers the survivability of a farm.

While the lack of a clear connection to farming may keep the farm bill from being at the top of minds for many Nebraskans, the implications of the 2012 Farm Bill will most certainly be felt here at home. In a state where one out of three jobs is dependent on agriculture and agribusiness, and many Nebraskans, particularly children, utilize the bill’s nutrition programs, it’s a discussion worth noting.

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