Food & Power: Status Quo Farm Bill Does Not Tackle Agriculture Consolidation Nor Address the Farm Crisis

Combine harvesting wheat – Photo courtesy of iStock by Getty Images

by Claire Kelloway | December 20, 2018

Last week, Congress passed the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, a.k.a, “the Farm Bill.” While Democrats managed to evade Republican efforts to add work requirements to SNAP benefits, this Farm Bill otherwise maintains a status quo that pushes farms to get big or get out, promotes exports over supply management, and benefits agribusiness interests.

At a time when farm income has dropped over 50 percent since 2013, farmers are in desperate need of a better safety net and protection from predatory agribusinesses. In previous decades, agriculture policy dealt with falling prices by encouraging farmers to cut back on production. But farm bills since the 1960s, whether as a part of Cold War strategy or free-market ideology, have slowly dismantled these supply management systems in favor of unfettered production. This bill is no different, in fact, it contains changes to the conservation reserve program that will make it even less appealing to set land aside and cut back production.

“We’ve slowly but surely taken away almost all of the tools that we can use to respond to oversupply and low prices,” says Ferd Hoefner, Senior Strategic Advisor for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

This Farm Bill does contain a few bright spots for dairy farmers, organic research, local food systems, and beginning and disadvantaged farmers. But the bill also takes a few notable steps backward that will perpetuate environmentally degrading farming practices and further consolidation.

Most notably, despite bipartisan interest and vocal opposition from Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, this Farm Bill did not close loopholes that funnel unlimited commodity subsidy and crop insurance payments to the largest farms, nor require that subsidy recipients actively engage in farming. In fact, it expanded opportunities for extended family including nieces, nephews, and cousins to receive subsidy payments whether or not they’ve set foot on the farm. In 2015 and 2016, $63 million in farm subsidies went to 18,000 big city residents, according to EWG.

“Taxpayers are basically subsidizing the largest farms in the country and giving them the wherewithal to rent and purchase land in their neighboring communities,” says Hoefner. “If you have the large plantation style operations taking all the best land, there’s just less and less opportunity, even for farms that are already in existence much less for a young new generation of farmers who are trying to break into agriculture.”

Hoefner also notes that tactics from previous Farm Bill debates like reforming crop insurance or taking on unfair practices by meatpackers didn’t even get a vote this time around. “If you’re trying to do something that would actually restore competition to the market, forget about it, you’re not getting over this wall,” Hoefner says.

Some farmers did welcome the bill’s effort to address the dairy crisis, by reforming the failed Dairy Margin Protection Program (MPP). The updated program will increase payouts when the difference between what farmers paid to raise cows and what they receive for milk falls too low, and the payment structure should particularly benefit smaller dairies.

This “is a welcome change for smaller-scale producers,” said dairy farmer and President of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, Darin Von Ruden. But he added that the program will not address the larger issues dairy farmers face. “An important priority for the next Congress will be addressing mega-mergers in ag markets and the lack of meaningful competition,” he said. Wisconsin alone has lost over 630 dairy farms this year.

While the bill fails to take on core drivers of agricultural woe, it does expand upon or introduce a smattering of hopeful supports for small, new, and marginalized farmers.

This Farm Bill nearly triples funding for the Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Program and the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. These programs give grants to non-profits and educational institutions that work with new farmers, farmers of color, veterans, and other aspiring growers who do not fit into an overwhelmingly white, male, and aging industry. The bill also secures more permanent funding for similar grant programs that support local food system development and farmers markets. It also expands organic research funding from $20 million to $50 million by 2023.

The bill also creates a pilot program for owners of “heirs property” to apply for federal farm supports and credit. Heirs property has no formal title and no single owner, the land is passed informally from generation to generation and all heirs of the original owner are legally co-owners. An estimated 40 percent of African-American owned land is heirs property, and until now these farmers have been cut off from programs like USDA loans and crop insurance.

The Farm Bill also fully legalizes hemp cultivation, opening a new and potentially lucrative commodity market. Currently, the bulk of America’s $620 million market for hemp-products is made from imported hemp, and this market could explode if demand for CBD products, a non-intoxicating cannabinoid derived from either cannabis or hemp, hits a projected $1.15 billion in sales by 2020.

But Jillian Hishaw, an attorney for small farmers and farmers of color, says this will work for small farmers only with smart market regulation. “Many sectors of ag already have monopolies stifling small farmers. As a new market, protections need to be put in place or the same trajectory is inevitable in the cannabis and hemp space,” she says.

What We’re Reading

  • JBS recently reached a $50,000 settlement with USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Service for violating the Packers & Stockyards Act, reveals the Organization for Competitive Markets. A JBS beef plant in Nebraska failed to properly record the weights and prices of cattle carcasses, shortchanging ranchers.
  • Minnesota’s environmental regulator denied a permit for a new hog CAFO due to concerns over sensitive geology and tainted groundwater, reports the Star Tribune.
  • Yet another Big Beer goliath has thrown their hat in the legal cannabis green rush. Bloomberg reports that AbInBev will enter a research partnership with Canada’s Tilray.
  • The Institute for Local Self Reliance published a report demonstrating how the recent proliferation of dollar stores in low-income neighborhoods, rural areas, and communities of color furthers inequality and pushes out local businesses and full-service grocers.