Today, President Trump signs the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018 (the “farm bill”) into law. Over the past year, our allies and supporters called their elected officials, signed petitions, wrote letters to the editor and organized their communities—doing everything possible to impress upon Congress the importance of legislation that supports the nation’s farmers, and the food insecure, in an equitable and responsible way. It is time for a quick inventory of achievements and the work yet ahead, though there isn’t much time for us, or our supporters and allies, to catch our breath.
Case in point was today’s 5 am announcement from the Department of Agriculture (USDA) of a rule that all but states that in this administration’s view Congress doesn’t have the final word on formulating food and farm law. Senator Debbie Stabenow, ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, immediately and forcefully articulated the subversion of democratic process that this is: “Congress writes laws, and the administration is required to write rules based on the law, not the other way around. Congress chose not to change the current Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or “food stamp”) work rules in the farm bill and, instead, focused on strengthening work programs that actually help people get jobs.”
As our Food Systems and Health Analyst Sarah Reinhardt has pointed out, the draconian “work-requirement” provisions originally proposed by the House, rejected by the Senate, and now proposed for resurrection by the USDA, dissemble: they would apply to only 8 percent of current SNAP participants, many of whom do work but aren’t paid enough to provide for all their needs. The timing of this announcement made it plain that the President required this petty grandstanding to secure his signature on the bill. Pragmatically, what will follow is a comment period during which we must continue to work to demonstrate that there are more effective and compassionate ways to support our fellow citizens to get back on their financial feet. And in the grander picture, it is a perfect illustration of the fact that though the legislation is authorized every five years, the farm bill is never really settled.
The Consensus: Farm bills consistently reinforce status quo, so why persist in engaging?
I’ll be the first to say it: This is another farm bill that largely maintains the status quo when it comes to food policy. At the same time, the legislation includes crucial wins for smart, forward-thinking investments in a healthier food and farm system. Programs that we fought for—such as those supporting farmers markets, promoting smarter farming practices that protect our soil and water, and increasing access to healthy foods for those who are most in need—are all included in the final package. These are important steps towards the kind of healthy food system we need.
Actually, I need to own up that I was not the first to articulate the preceding passage. It is exactly what we said when the 2014 farm bill was passed. And nothing more perfectly illustrates the vexing nature of farm bill work. It is what has led sharp colleagues to conclude that it is best to advance food system reform through alternate strategies. For example, former Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan has determined that to escape the Groundhog Day spin cycle she will now emphasize partnering with innovators in the food industry: “It is a time of intractability in policymaking at the federal level. And while I’ll always be engaged and vocal in federal food policy…right now, the private sector is leading.” Many others argue that there is no way that a $900 billion bill that so emphatically preserves the agricultural status quo can ever be called a success. As Gracy Olmstead starkly articulates: “For years, Farm Bill subsidies have been skewed to benefit the rich and powerful.” And this has not changed. This year, efforts to curb farm subsidies, particularly for millionaires, were abandoned at the last minute. The thing is, that is actually how we described the 2014 farm bill’s machinations (this year’s big sop to the already wealthy was the broadening of eligibility for up to $125,000 of farm bill payments to non-farming relatives who can claim that they are involved in “farm management.” If nothing else, that should put in proper perspective the meanness of Secretary Perdue’s claim that “work requirement rules are about a second chance, not a way of life.”)
So why do we and other organizations committed to effective food and equitable agriculture policy engage every five years in a struggle that seems to be for marginal gain? An omnibus bill by its nature comes to us as a whole, as my colleague Karen Stillerman summarized in 2014, and is thereby inherently about accepting a manifold package. Therefore, our struggle cannot be about taking or leaving a bill so massive in its reach that it touches all of us—for good or ill—but instead to do everything possible to shape the contents and intents of the legislation. One of the ways of doing this is persistence. For example, over the course of 30 years of constant work across five farm bills, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (UCS is a proud and active member) has accounted for a suite of programs ranging from local food systems, beginning farmers, fruit and vegetable production, organic research and working lands conservation that approaches $5 billion over five years. As Ferd Hoefner, the Coalition’s Senior Strategic Advisor puts it, “That is getting to be real money.”
2018 Farm Bill wins
This year’s wins include permanent funding for the Local Agriculture Market Program, Farmer Opportunity Training and Outreach Program, and a series of measures that will more equitably fund Land Grant Universities serving primarily African Americans, protect African American farmers from loss of land and provide training for farm laborers who wish to take up farming. On the cautionary side, our agroecologist Marcia DeLonge has summarized this farm bill’s effect on conservation programs and the consequent prospects for our long-term agricultural resilience.
This illustrates why all of us working toward an equitable food and agriculture system need to keep our eye on the ball and persist. While we pursue multiple strategies and work patiently to build the political power and will to overcome the narrow interests of the agribusiness lobby (which outspends us to the tune of $100,000,000 per year), we cannot afford to be dispirited or fail to measure the long-term cumulative impact of every “small” victory.