At some point today, did you sit down for a meal? Buy a shirt? Sit or hike in a national park? Did you or your child have a meal in a public school? Go grocery shopping at your supermarket, boedga, or farmers market? Drive a car using ethanol or “green gasoline”? Or utilize your unemployment benefits?
If you’ve done any one of these things, among many others, you have been involved in an activity affected by the farm bill.
On its face, none of these things would seem to have anything in common. I mean, shopping and hiking are, like, totally different things, right? Not when one bill covers everything from conservation and food stamps, energy policy and direct payments to farmers (and possibly your suburban neighbors!), all to the tune of $288 billion over 5 years . The Farm Bill is a massive piece of legislation that few of us ever hear about, let alone think about, and yet effects almost every facet of our modern society. (And no, that’s not exaggeration.)
But what is this Farm Bill, you ask?
Put simply, the Farm Bill is actually a collection of legislative programs that have, for the last 80-odd years, assisted in developing our current food system1. Originally the result of creating programs to support farmers and farm ecology during the Dust Bowl and Depression (1929 till World War 2, effectively), the Farm Bill over time has come to encompass the following Title programs2: Commodity Payments, Conservation Programs, Trade, Nutrition, Credit, Rural Development, Research & Development, Forestry, Energy, Horticulture & Organic Farming, Livestock, Crop insurance & Disaster Assistance, Commodity Futures & Miscellaneous Programs. It gets reviewed every 5 years for all programs, and modified the same way any piece of legislation is done – through committees (Agriculture, Appropriations, and this year, SUPERcommittee!), letters written to your congressional representatives, and of course, a bevy of lobbying money from agri-business companies, non-profits, trade groups, foreign governments (hah — Bet you didn’t see that one coming!) and public interest groups.
That sounds torridly complicated.
And how! It’s several dockets of programs within programs, written in the most remarkable claptrap legalese imaginable. All of it is largely written to the benefit of lawmakers who are sending pork projects back to constituents. There are programs in one title that do the same thing as another program, but covered in a different title of the bill! There’s the fact that only several hundred million from $288 billion dollars went to fruits and vegetables, and large swathes of money went to cotton and corn humans can’t even eat! It’s filled with terms like counter-cyclical payments, market registry sheets, and interdependent-transitional payment regimes, and numbers (like $288 billion) that make your mind go Scooby Doo. It is almost enough to make you want to watch Jersey Shore (and that, mind you, only happened the once).
And that’s why we’re here.
The origins of this blog came out of my second class with Professor Marion Nestle, entitled (aptly) Sociology of the Farm Bill. After our first week of readings, she proceeded to open the class like so:
Marion: So you all must have done the reading this weekend, much like I did….
various grumbles, half-nods and jilted laughter of us graduate students
Marion: …but this was a re-read for me. You see, I read all of this over the summer. And reading it again, I couldn’t help but feel as if this is all so, so unnecessarily difficult to read.
Marion, by the way, used to work for the United States Department of Agriculture, and has written a few things herself on the topic. She has a PhD in Nutrition, which as a hard science is even more technical than my social sciences brain wants to handle. And if she is having difficulty, and her class of ostensibly intelligent graduate students is having difficulty, imagine what Joe Citizen would feel attempting to even break into an analysis of the Farm Bill?
The purpose behind Farm Bill Almanac is to read the tea-leaves a little and break down all the issues involved with and connected to the Farm Bill as we ramp up to its next review in Spring 2012. We’re going to be breaking down the individual titles, examine the programs, and relate it back to how you, the readership, are affected positively, negatively, and otherwise by its multitude of programs directly, indirectly, and yes, otherwise.
We’ll also be covering a couple of side-topics – farmers markets, affordability and cost issues, useful infographics on food – so it’s not going to be all ho-hum all-farm-bill-all-the-time. The idea is to keep this as accessible and easily explained as possible Not dumbed down, mind you, but easy enough that this topic can finally be grasped, and hopefully, give readers the tools to either understand the systems in place around them, or begin to work on their congressional representatives, volunteer with organizations that reflect their desires for, or just want to get involved with the Farm Bill in general. Because whether or not you care, the Farm Bill does effect your life (& your wallet) in more ways than you know.
These are going to be interesting times with the 2012 Farm Bill. We’re already seeing competing measures put forth by various committees and groups of individuals besides the Supercommittee, and even within it there are politics at work. State organizations are beginning to take actions based upon their projections for the Farm Bill. And even now, actions are being taken on programs that are undercutting environmental protections, crop insurance provisions, food stamp programs and financial support for new and beginning farmers. And while none of that may seem relevant to you right now, just be ready – you’ll be surprised by what you’ll find out.
With the best of regards,
3 So you must be thinking “Your name isn’t Farm Bill Almanac?!? Who are you?!?!”. A) indeed, it is not my name – my parents weren’t such hippies – and B) I’m Stephen Wade. I observed and wrote about the 2007 Farm Bill for the Berkeley Political Review and have been involved examining and documenting Farm Bill-related politics and programs for the last several years. Presently, I’m a graduate student at NYU’s Steinhardt School, obtaining my MA in Food Studies, with a focus on conservation & agriculture policy and national food security programs. I come from a analysts background, and my goal here is to best present a breakdown of the Farm Bill programs, without casting major judgment. I will, however, make certain cases for certain changes in programs, but those will be independent entries from any of the breakdown of the individual titles . I also like hiking, muscadet & Tomales Bay oysters, and letterpress.