To talk about the importance of the farm bill for people across the country, Ed Schafer goes way back - all the way to the formation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1862 by President Abraham Lincoln.

"When President Lincoln established the Department of Agriculture, he called it 'The People's Department.' And he called it The People's Department because it affects so many people's lives in so many ways," explains Schafer, who served as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture from 2008 to 2009. "It really touches people's lives in ways most people don't even know."

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The farm bill, he says, has never just been about the farm. Instead, it has looked at the food system as a whole. That broad focus has created some unique coalitions, including joining agriculture groups with advocates for conservation and nutrition programs to help the massive legislation find support across political, geographic and ideological lines.

"The importance of the farm bill is majorly focused on providing the safest, the least costly, the most secure and most abundant food supply in the world," Schafer says.

And since everyone eats, everyone has a stake in that.

"Farm bills are something that really bring lawmakers together," agrees Ellen Vollinger, SNAP director at the Food Research and Action Center.

Supply side

"The problem with agriculture is the productive capacity can disappear through no fault of your own," Schafer says.

Whether it's weather, disease, trade or world pricing, farmers and ranchers are at the mercy of a lot of forces they can't control. That, Schafer says, is why subsidies, crop insurance and other programs included in the farm bill that ensures farmers can keep farming even in lean years are important.

Also important to ensuring an adequate food supply are research programs funded by the farm bill, he says. Research helps improve production as well as address distribution issues, food spoilage and more, Schafer says.

Schafer says the "supply" side of agriculture also includes things like the U.S. Forest Service and conservation programs. The Forest Service, he explains, takes up a sizeable portion of the USDA budget. It provides recreation opportunities and maintains forests "that are sucking the carbon out of the air" everyone breathes, he says.

Conservation, says Ferd Hoefner, senior strategic advisor at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, has been an important component of the farm bill since the first farm bill in 1933.

"The farm bill as we know it started in the New Deal, and conservation was part and parcel of the New Deal program," Hoefner says.

Conservation in the farm bill goes back to the New Deal, in the midst of the Dust Bowl.
Conservation in the farm bill goes back to the New Deal, in the midst of the Dust Bowl.
The New Deal farm programs came in response to the Dust Bowl, years of dust storms caused by a combination of overplowing of the grasslands and an enduring drought.

Prior to 1985, farm bills put in place non-mandatory programs that helped farmers enact conservation practices. Starting in 1985, farm bills started putting money into conservation, and the funding increased with each farm bill until the 2014 version, which cut funding, Hoefner says.

Conservation programs belong in the farm bill because they provide a way for farmers to enact conservation practices without hurting their bottom line, Schafer says. Hoefner says those programs also provide for an improved environment that benefits not just farmers but also the general public.

"The more that farmers can reduce erosion and improve the health and fertility of their soil, the more productive they will be," Hoefner says. "Floods are less likely to do damage; droughts are less likely to do damage to yields."

Demand side

Schafer says the farm bill also looks at getting food to people who need it and making sure it is safe. So, there are programs for inspections, as well as for trade and for marketing products domestically and internationally.

But the largest portion of the farm bill - and one that can make debates an emotional issue - is the nutrition portion. Funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP or food stamps, along with other nutrition programs, like school food programs, help create demand, Schafer says.

Ellen Vollinger
Ellen Vollinger
Vollinger says it's important when trying to pass legislation to find support. For the farm bill, a commonality across the board for every Congressional district is SNAP. The program is available and used in every part of the country, and while it sometimes is assumed to be more of an urban issue, Vollinger says that's not the case.

"The percentage is greater in participation in rural areas," she says. "It's not unheard of that some of those rural participants are in fact part of farming families."

Nutrition funding provides demand all throughout the food chain, Vollinger says. The USDA's Economic Research Service estimates that every dollar spent on SNAP generates $1.79 in economic activity. She worries that proposals to cut nutrition funding may affect not only people in need of assistance but also farmers, retailers, truckers and more.

"There are some food retailers that are operating at very slim margins," she says. "SNAP is important to their revenue."

A way forward

The 2014 farm bill expires at the end of September, and both the Senate and the House have been at work on versions of a new bill. The Senate bill largely builds on farm bills that came before and has garnered support from advocates from agriculture, nutrition and conservation groups. The House version would make large cuts to SNAP and some conservation programs, among other changes. While other issues, including immigration, also played a part in its failure, a lack of bipartisan support from a variety of stakeholders helped sink the House version in its first floor vote.

Vollinger sees the Senate bill as the most likely vehicle to move forward, in part because it has involved the same components that have drawn support in the past.

"They've managed to come up with the way farm bills typically get done," she says.

Hoefner, too, prefers the Senate version, in part because the House version would make broad cuts to "working lands" programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program and EQIP, which both have strong buy-in from producers.

Despite a seemingly difficult road forward in finding consensus, Schafer isn't worried.

"This is normal," he says of the disagreements. Farm bills, he points out, often get extended as a new one is written and rarely seem to make it to the finish line by the deadline.

During the process of finishing the 2008 farm bill, when Schafer was leading the USDA, there were arguments over subsidy reform, about getting programs fully funded and "hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of minor skirmishes" over programs, he says.

Part of making a farm bill work includes getting together diverse groups - groups that otherwise might not get along - for their common interests, Schafer says.

"If the coalitions start getting fractured, then mechanically, you don't get anything done," he says. "Then we are talking about 'if I get mine, you can't get yours.' Then it becomes me versus you, competitively, instead of 'how can I become a part of this to make the broad thing happen."