The Farm Bill

The time has come to talk about the Farm Bill. It matters greatly to many folks other than those involved in the production of food and fiber. Last week the House of Representatives defeated its version of the omnibus spending bill, unleashing a tidal wave, (or is it more politically correct to say tsunami now?) of outrage from many farm sectors. The Senate passed its side of the story some time ago.

The defeat was called a stunner, shocking and assorted rather less polite epithets by folks from all corners of the political spectrum. Surprisingly to me at least, only 24 Democrats voted in favor of it, even though it came out of committee with a reasonable level of support.

I was also surprised at the resulting barrage of vitriol from farmers and farm writers at this defeat. It made a lot of folks downright mad and they weren't afraid to say so. Many took the failure of the bill as a serious insult to the industry that feeds our nation, as well a personal slap in the face. However, being somewhat uncomfortable with the dairy provisions that will probably be included, which are said by a small, but increasingly vocal segment of the dairy industry to favor large dairies over small -- the very ones that keep New York hillsides green -- I had mixed emotions.

There was, naturally, much talk about the declining importance of rural America to powers inside the Beltway. A few minutes spent reading mainstream newspapers on the Farm Bill shows this to be frighteningly true. It has become fashionable to despise conventional farmers. Farm bashing is an art form in many segments of the press, with plenty of clever, if snarky, language, and little concern for the realities of coping with the vagaries of nature, regulation and the many other challenges of growing food.

From, "The many farm and agribusiness lobbyists who were relying on the bill's passage to safeguard the status quo and their countless specially interested, pork-tossing programs were shocked -- righteously, indignantly shocked, I say -- and plan to continue to press the House leadership so that they can get theirs, dammit, no matter how much market distortion and taxpayer money it costs the American economy and budget."

And then there is the little matter of the president threatening to veto the whole affair if he didn't like it.

However, in sad reality the defeat of the Farm Bill had almost nothing to do with agriculture and everything to do with handouts, or a helping hand if you prefer, to people who have no involvement or interest in the industry whatsoever, other than that they eat.

This is because up to 80 percent of the funds allocated by the bill go to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. We used to call them food stamps, but there are no stamps involved, and in some particularly egregious cases, no food either. (Search for EBT cards being used inside establishments dedicated to adult entertainment.)

I won't put you to sleep with the details, but basically one party, (I'll bet you can guess) wants to cut SNAP benefits. The other (also an easy target) wants to maintain funding. And that right there is pretty much the speed bump where Farm Bill discussion derailed.

The provisions that regulate ag funding ride on the coattails of the feeding programs. (Considering that 80-20 split in revenue, a good place to start with Farm Bill reform would be to change the name of the omnibus package. Something SNAPpy would be in order, I think.)

Meanwhile I thought you might enjoy some quotes from all over the spectrum, of reactions to the Farm Bill defeat, ranging from the smug purple of delighted self-congratulation to the glaring red of injured outrage.

From the Washington Post, "Pardon us for not rending our garments at the downfall of a measure that would have lavished tens of billions of dollars in subsidies on one of the most prosperous sectors of the U.S. economy while cutting $20 billion over 10 years from a major program for the poor, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The bill includes costly milk supports and sugar protectionism but would have left mostly unchanged wasteful international food aid practices in defiance of a strong Obama administration reform push."

(Ooh, feel that prosperity. They are talking about us you know. I can see the small rural communities of upstate New York, supported largely by agricultural businesses and the farms around them, just rolling in prosperity even as we speak).

And on the other side, from North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, quoted in the Grand Forks Herald, "Instead of coming together to agree on a bipartisan piece of legislation that gets rid of unnecessary programs, saves billions of dollars for the American taxpayer, and preserves a farm safety net, the House failed rural America," she said in a statement.

One thing that slays me about the whole debacle is that once again legislative pundits are threatening consumers with a return to the original 1949 Farm Bill, which some say would raise consumer food prices as high as the top of a brand new silo.

Nonsense. That didn't happen late last year when legislators failed to pass a Farm Bill and it isn't going to happen now. You don't want to be counting your parity pay checks if you are a dairy farmer, because if they can't pass the new bill they will extend the old one, just as they did the last time. Of course, Henry Reid has said no way, no how, but if this isn't the route taken, then conference committees will iron things out soon enough.

Meanwhile, don't forget that when all is said and done, whether you are a fan of the Goodlatte-Scott amendment, which removes dairy supply management from the Farm Bill, or the Dairy Security Act which embraces the same, this bill really isn't about you anymore. These days the Farm Bill is about feeding the needy, not needing the feedies.

Fultonville dairy farmer MARIANNE FRIERS

is a regular columnist. She blogs