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What will the 2018 farm bill bring?

Every five years or so, our federal senators and representatives take up the topic of a farm bill. Next year is already 2018, so it's time for the farm bill to be a topic of debate.

These are changing — some would say turbulent — times in agriculture. The markets are a little uncertain, agriculture has truly become a global market and the news out of Washington, D.C. isn't getting any less interesting.

There are several proponents, and also several opponents of the farm bill. And, unlike most political issues, it is difficult to predict support or opposition to the farm bill based upon political allegiance. Stated differently, you can't necessarily predict if someone is opposed or in favor of a farm bill based upon whether they are Republican or Democrat.

In this column, I will attempt to present a good old-fashioned fact-based treatment of this topic. As both a farmer and a lawyer, I enjoy a "just the facts, ma'am" approach to complicated topics. And this is definitely a complicated topic.

The first question to address: What's the cost of the present (2014) farm bill? According to the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, over five years the projected cost of the present farm bill is $489 billion. That's somewhere around $100 billion annually.

Nearly 80 percent of the projected spending for the present farm bill is for nutrition programs. That leaves roughly $6 billion per year for conservation programs, $8 billion annually for crop insurance, $5 billion annually for commodity programs and $1 billion annually for other programs.

The allocation for nutrition programs is not without controversy. In fact, during the last farm bill there was an amendment proposed that permitted states to require food stamp beneficiaries to either be employed or actively seeking employment. According to a news article by Cansler Consulting, once the amendment was added to the actual bill, the House rejected the bill on a 234-195 vote. House Republicans then began to advocate splitting the bill into two parts, so the nutrition programs could be considered separately. Again according to the news article by Cansler Consulting, "[t]he lawmakers principally behind this strategy were defeated in their re-election campaigns are no longer in Congress."

How long has the farm bill been around? Since the 1930s the federal government has had a large role in regulation of farming, which coincides with the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl days. In fact, on a different note the Senate and House agriculture committees are amongst the oldest in those institutions, going all the way back to the early 1800s. Although the first farm bills dealt more with direct aid to farmers than the present farm bills, the present farm bill encompasses titles relating to commodity programs, conservation, trade, nutrition, farm credit, rural development, research and extension, forestry, energy, horticulture and crop insurance.

The crafting of the farm bill is going to be politically charged. On one side of the spectrum are the groups that believe the farmers need an effective "safety net." This side exists in both parties, actually. In a very general sense, the more liberal faction of this side tends to believe in more direct payments to producers, whereas the more conservative faction of this side tends to believe in a crop insurance-oriented approach, requiring farmers to have "skin in the game" if they are going to receive benefits in a poor crop year.

However, there is some momentum with a completely different faction: the group that believes the federal farm program needs to be slashed drastically or even eliminated. Five years ago when farmers were having a series of great years, this group had momentum. So did the group that believes in separating the nutrition programs — and 80 percent of the cost of the farm bill — altogether.

Watch for more agriculture and policy news as the calendar turns to 2018. It's around the corner!

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