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Afterlife Of The Secret Farm Bill

The demise of a Farm Bill drafted in secrecy means the next version will go through standard Congressional channels, which has mixed implications for farmers.

Portrait of Senator Debbie Stabenow, speaking at a microphone.  She is a woman appearing to be in her 50s or 60s, with red hair, wearing a black blazer over a red shirt.  An American flag hangs behind her.

Photo: USDAgov (Flickr)

Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan), chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, hopes that the new Farm Bill will protect the financial safety net in place for farmers whose livelihood is vulnerable to the effects of weather and pests in addition to the struggling economy.

When the bipartisan Senate “supercommittee” failed to pass a new budget by its deadline of November 21st, it also failed to pass a new Farm Bill.

The Farm Bill was controversial. Largely written behind closed doors, it received criticism from Michael Pollan for its lack of transparency and a cautious eye from Marion Nestle.

But now that the whole process is dead in the water, farmers and foodies await news of what it means for them and for the future farm bill that must be passed in 2012, before the current one expires.

Secrets Don’t Make Friends… Do They?

While the secrecy surrounding the drafting of the new farm bill was met with raised eyebrows, its purpose was not necessarily sinister.

Drafting and passing the bill in committee would have protected it from attacks on the Congressional floor.

Proponents of the process argue that it ensures the protection of vulnerable farmer subsidies.

Critics counter that its lack of transparency was designed to conceal the influence of the “agribusiness lobby” which seeks to “guarantee growers a continued stream of federal money with as few strings attached as possible.”

Profits And Budget Cuts

The automatic budget cuts triggered by the supercommittee’s failure will cut the agriculture budget by $15 billion.

The failed Farm Bill, however, included $23 billion in cuts. So when Congress takes their next stab at drafting the new farm bill, $23 billion in cuts is likely to be their starting point.

An increase in cuts seems virtually guaranteed by the surprising current economic status of the agriculture industry. Despite a year of bad weather, USDA secretary Tom Vilsack has announced that net farm income is anticipated to be $21 billion by the end of 2011.

This is a 28 percent increase from the end of 2010, a rare bright spot on the landscape of the American economy.

Members of the Senate and House Agriculture Commitees anticipate this will make it difficult to justify maintaining a strong safety net for farmers.

“There’s no question current farm incomes are high, but so are the weather risks, so is the volatility in the world when you look at price and yield risk for farmers,” said Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan), Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “This is certainly a risky business.”

It’s Like Passing A Kidney Stone

The development and processing of the new farm bill through standard Congressional practices will certainly be more transparent and offer more opportunities for conversation.

But critics on all sides of the issue predict that it’s going to be ugly.

The House and Senate Agriculture Committees now face the “unprecedented feat” of passing a Farm Bill in an election year.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) has said that even at the best of times, passing a Farm Bill is “like passing a kidney stone.”

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Sarah Gordon

Sarah Gordon has been interested in food ethics since she was 15, learned about industrial slaughter, and launched into 10 years of vegetarianism. These days, she strives to be a conscientious omnivore. Now a PhD candidate in folklore, her research has caused her to spend a lot of time in the remote Canadian sub-arctic, where the lake trout (sustainably harvested) tastes amazing.

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