The Senate is voting on a $955 billion farm bill. Here’s what’s in it.

June 10, 2013

On Monday evening, the Senate voted 66 to 27 to approve a massive farm bill that will set the course of U.S. food policy for the next half-decade. The old farm bill expired last year, and its replacement is 1,150 pages long, costing some $955 billion over 10 years. So what’s actually in it?

The Congressional Research Service has one of the few clear breakdowns (pdf) of the bill's various provisions. I've redone their analysis in simplified pie-chart form:

That includes:

Food stamps and nutrition, $760.5 billion over 10 years. This is by far the biggest part of the farm bill, with the bulk taken up by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which helps low-income families pay for food. The Senate bill tweaks some of the rules governing eligibility and cut spending slightly by $3.9 billion compared to what would happen if current policy was kept. (There's also a controversial amendment by David Vitter to ban anyone convicted of a violent crime from food stamps for life.)

Note that the House bill makes somewhat deeper cuts here, reducing food-stamp payments by $20.5 billion over 10 years compared to current policy. More on that down below.

Commodity programs, $41.3 billion over 10 years. This section includes a variety of programs to shield farmers against sharp fluctuations in prices, particularly corn, wheat, soybean, cotton, rice, peanut, and dairy producers.

In past years, this was an even bigger chunk of various farm bills, which often provided “direct payments” to farmers regardless of how much they actually planted or how much they would sell their crops for. This latest farm bill would cut most of these direct payments, saving about $17.44 billion over 10 years.

Those cuts are arguably the biggest policy change in the Senate bill — and, as NPR's Jonathan Ahl has reported, they're contentious among farmers. Many of the savings have been channeled into other types of farm aid, including billions of dollars in disaster assistance and subsidized loans for farmers. (There's also a new program to protect peanut and rice growers from steep price drops.)

Crop insurance, $89 billion over 10 years. For decades, farmers have been able to buy crop insurance in case their crops fail or prices decline. The federal government currently pays about $7 billion per year to help cover the premiums. But under the new Senate farm bill, the government would also spend an additional $5 billion per year covering the deductibles that farmers have to pay before the insurance kicks in. This is supposed to help cushion the blow from the loss of direct payments.

This is one of the more contentious parts of the farm bill. Some critics have warned that this insurance program could cost far more than expected, depending on how crop prices shift. And the Environmental Working Group has argued that one-third of these subsidies go to the largest 4 percent of farm operators. In response, the Senate added a tweak to shrink subsidies for farmers earning more than $750,000 per year.

Conservation, $58 billion over 10 years. This includes programs to help farmers protect against soil erosion and to use ecologically friendly methods like drop irrigation. It also includes programs that pay farmers to grow on less land.

According to a Congressional Budget Office analysis, this part of the farm bill was cut by about $3.5 billion (compared with previous bills) — in part because the government will be supervising a smaller total area. Meanwhile, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition points out that most conservation programs will be cut by an extra $2.1 billion in total because of the sequester over the next decade.

Trade, $3.6 billion over 10 years. This money is used to promote U.S. crops overseas and provide food aid abroad. The government also offers some technical assistance to farmers in developing countries.

President Obama had earlier called for an overhaul of the food aid program. Instead of buying food from U.S. farmers and shipping it overseas, some of the money would just be sent directly to poor countries. But those reform efforts foundered, and the Senate ended up keeping the food-aid program intact, albeit with an extra $60 million to buy food locally in developing countries.

Energy, $1.1 billion over 10 years. This includes money for biofuels as well as for energy-efficiency programs in rural areas. It also provides funding to help develop biochemicals and bioplastics industries, in an attempt to reduce the country's reliance on fossil fuels.

Miscellaneous, about $1.1 billion over 10 years. This includes everything from forestry programs to rural development to research and development. There are programs for promoting farmers markets, selling off timber on federal lands, and even research into organic agriculture and citrus diseases. The Senate bill would create a new R&D agency akin to the National Institutes of Health.

In an interview, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack singled out as particularly important the creation of a new agricultural research agency akin to the National Institutes of Health. "Agriculture's never had anything like that before," he said. "As that research develops, it should give us new information about seed technologies, about different cropping systems, about how to use water more efficiently. That won’t just affect U.S. agriculture, but agriculture around the globe."

Wait! But what about the House bill?

Right. The Senate isn't the only chamber working on a farm bill. The House also has its own $940 billion version. The Congressional Research Service has a helpful graphic that compares the two versions against the current baseline:

Compared with the Senate bill, the House bill has less money for food stamps and nutrition, or $743 billion over 10 years. There's also somewhat less money for conservation, slightly deeper cuts to commodity payments, and a bit more money for crop insurance, thanks to a number of different rules used to calculate payments. (Under the Senate bill, for instance, farmers could lose their funding for premiums if they convert wetlands to crop production; the House doesn't have that provision.)

The Senate is expected to pass the farm bill on Monday evening. The House is then planning to take up the bill next week, although there are still plenty of disagreements within the chamber — particularly on whether the House version cuts food stamps too much or too little. The two bills will then have to be reconciled somehow.

Further reading: 

--NPR’s Scott Neuman wrote a primer on the history of the farm bill and why it's so important.

--Over at Grist, Tom Laskawy has an interesting essay on whether sustainable agriculture advocates should be happy with the bill or not.

--Some members of Congress want even deeper cuts to subsidies for farmers. Here's a piece from Taxpayers for Common Sense on this broader topic.

Note: This post is an updated and expanded version of this older guide to the Senate farm bill.

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Neil Irwin · June 10, 2013