Farm Bill 101 & Action Needed Now

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The Farm Bill is a 1001-page proposal that covers food, farming, nutrition, and land use, and is one of the primary tools for the US government to address issues that affect public health, climate, land and water. It’s drafted and hopefully passed through the House and Senate, and on to the President to sign every 5 to 7 years.

However, the days are limited for Congress to enact a new farm bill before the Sept. 30 expiration of current programs. For those paying attention, that Sept. 30, 2013 deadline was originally Sept. 30, 2012. Congress failed to complete its task last year, passing an extension in the early hours of Jan 1. 2013.

So, here we are – two years later – with no reform to outdated farm subsidies and funding stripped from nearly a dozen critical programs that help farmers and communities.  Programs that create jobs, invest in our next generation of farmers, and help farmers and communities build a more sustainable future.

The choices right now:

  1. Congress goes for another extension, pushing the farm bill out even further, which many say is a cop-out: misguided, costing taxpayers even more, leaving many underserved, and not a real solution.
  2. We push the House to move swiftly to appoint conferees to begin the formal conference process within the Senate, since both chambers of Congress have each already passed a version of the farm bill.  And, ultimately, pass the new farm bill legislation!

What do you want to do?

TAKE ACTION by sending an easy auto-letter to your House rep and Senators, or LEARN MORE?  Below we’ve compiled:

  • How Money Flows
  • Process Passing the Farm Bill
  • Farm Bill Components
  • House & Senate Ag Committee Structure
  • A Brief History
  • Glossary


Approximately $300 billion is allocated via the Farm Bill.  Each year following the renewal of the bill, a different committee (the House or Senate appropriations committee) is tasked with keeping the government on budget.  They decide to give each of the recipient programs more or less money.  This gives appropriations committees more power than most people realize because they ultimately decide which programs will get funded.

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For example: Many bills within the Farm Bill receive Mandatory funding, like crop insurance and counter-cyclical payments, and end up costing more than expected. As a result, cuts are made to titles with Discretionary funding status, such as conservation, beginning farmers, organic, and research.

Mandatory spending status does not make a program safe – the Appropriations Committee has the power to change the amount of money given to those programs, too.  Each year the 15 titles and their provisions are discussed and funded, or not.

  • Over 75% of the bill (commodity subsidies and food stamp and lunch programs) receives mandatory funding, which are not necessarily reviewed every year.
  • Only 9% of the Farm Bill is directed towards conservation, a primary defense against loss of critical farmland.


Step 1: In 2010, Congresspeople and advocates started preparing.

Step 2: During Spring of 2012, the process to reauthorize the 2012 Farm Bill began:

  • The House Agriculture Committee held hearings across eight states to review current Ag policy.
  • Simultaneously, the US Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee began its review by hearing from witnesses about the effectiveness and ineffectiveness of the current policy.

These two committees prep the bill for the House or Senate, respectively. It is up to either the Speaker of the House or the Majority Leader of the Senate to put the bill on schedule for either floor.

Step 3: If the bill passes through the House and then the Senate, the final step is the President’s signature.

This is where we are now.  A version of the bill has already been passed by both the House and Senate, and now they need to begin the formal conference process within the Senate.  Send an easy auto-letter to your House rep and Senators to tell them to get this done now instead of another extension.

Because the Farm Bill is being renewed and not created from scratch, this process is called “reauthorization”.


  • It’s an omnibus bill, meaning it is one document accepted in a single vote by Congress, but it actually contains many measures, amendments, and even new laws in a single bill.
  • Screen Shot 2013-09-19 at 10.11.09 AMThe Farm Bill is comprised of 15 Titles (aka sections or chapters) covering: Commodities, Conservation, Trade, Nutrition, Credit, Rural Development, Research, Forestry, Energy, Horticulture & Organic Ag, Livestock, Crop Insurance, Commodity Futures, Miscellaneous acts, and Trade & Taxes.
  • Each Title is separated into a varying number of provisions, sub-provisions and sub-sub-provisions.
  • Provisions are how a bill is compartmentalized into sections with correlating numbers.
  • Each Title may have as few as 2 provisions and 9 sub-provisions, as does Title XIII or as many as 7 provisions and 50 sub-provisions, as does Title I.

When speaking or writing about the different sections of the bill, people call them provisions or sub-provisions.


The House and Senate Ag committees make most of the important decisions to shape the Farm Bill.

House Committee on Ag

The House of Representative’s House Committee on Ag has general jurisdiction over federal ag policy and is responsible for researching and recommending funding for various government programs.

The Committee is separated into sub-committees:

  1. Conservation, Energy, and Forestry
  2. Department Operations, Oversight, and Credit
  3. General Farm Commodities and Risk Management
  4. Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry
  5. Nutrition and Horticulture (previously Horticulture and Organics)
  6. Rural Development, Research, Biotech, and Foreign Ag

These committees have the power to initiate bills and impeach officials, whereas the Senate committee members cannot.

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Senate Committee of Ag, Nutrition and Forestry

The Senate Committee of Ag has legislative oversight, meaning it is responsible for reviewing, monitoring, supervising, and implementing related bills.

The Committee is separated into sub-committees:

  1. Rural Revitalization, Conservation, Forestry, and Credit
  2. Energy, Science, and Technology
  3. Domestic and Foreign Marketing, Inspection, and Plant and Animal Health
  4. Hunger, Nutrition, and Family Farms


The Farm Bill started as The Federal Farm Loan Act of 1916, and receives a new name every time it’s reauthorized (Congress-speak for “renewed”). Last time it was passed in Congress, it was called The Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008.

The Farm Bill was originally created to support farms, farmers, and Americans during the Great Depression. Over the past eight decades, the bill has evolved into a complicated piece of legislature supporting the production of only a few crops and, some say, indirectly creating food deserts.

The Farm Bill is an opportunity to reexamine U.S. policy and funding to support sustainable and regional food systems, restorative production methods, beginning farmer initiatives, food and worker justice, conservation practices, clean energy, and a healthy population.


Appropriation – Process by which funds are allocated.  Every year, Farm Bill funds are appropriated to specific programs.  Every 5-7 years when the bill is reauthorized, however, funds are appropriated to overall Titles.

Appropriations Committees – Agriculture committees in both the House and the Senate that deliberate on top priorities, and establish appropriations before they are discussed on the floor.

Authorization – Political-speak for instating a bill. The Farm Bill is officially reauthorized every 5-7 years, but in reality, the appropriation process causes the previously authorized bill to be reviewed every year.

Baseline – Each year the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects the cost of specific programs for the next year.  In most cases, these funds to be awarded to the programs are known as the baseline. Programs with mandatory funding may not have baselines since they are almost all automatically renewed.

Bill – A broad term meaning an idea or proposal being written up that can possibly become law.  A bill becomes law if it successfully passes through the House and Senate and is signed by the President.

Commodity – In the context of the Farm Bill, 20 crops designated to receive subsidies — five of which are major beneficiariescorn, cotton, rice, soybeans and wheat.

Counter-Cyclical Payments – Payments made to commodity producers when the year’s average crop price falls below the target price determined by historical data. (I wish someone paid me when my income fell short of expectations!) The US paid $7.7B in counter-cyclical payments between 2002 and 2006.

Discretionary Funding – Indicates that funding for a particular bill is not a priority and will be determined yearly during the appropriations process based on cash available and budget restraints.  Discretionary Funding status means the bill will absolutely be reviewed each year by the appropriations committee.

Dumping – When a country exports a product for below production costs. The WTO considers it illegal, but the US continues to do this.  For example, Dan Imhoff in Food Fight proposes our dumping of corn into Mexico is a main cause of Mexican immigration. When US grain can be bought in Mexico for less than it costs to produce, farm workers lose work and many immigrate to the US for income.

Flat Funding – Somewhat of a misnomer, when an appropriations committee decreases funding to a bill that has mandatory funding status. This capability makes the Farm Bill more of a yearly concern, especially for conservationists who have seen funding decrease over the years. This is an example of the immense power of the appropriations committees and why we should keep tabs on them every year.

Mandatory Funding – Indicates that funding for a particular bill is flagged as a priority by Congress for the appropriations committees. These bills are most likely to survive the appropriations process each year. Subsidies and food stamp programs are usually marked with this status.  Mandatory Funding status bills may or may not be chosen for budget review by the appropriations committee.

Marker Bills – Marker bills contain a set of specific proposals to reform one or more Titles, and are deliberated on by the appropriations committees. They typically get introduced to Congress but are not discussed on the floor right away.  A marker bill typically has at least a few Congressional cosponsors upon introduction. The goal is to enlist more cosponsors after it is introduced for a better chance of passing later in the process.

Omnibus Bill – One single bill that actually contains many measures, amendments, and even new laws in the single bill. An omnibus bill is accepted or rejected in a single vote in the House or Senate.

Provision – An element of a bill that may be further subdivided into sub-provisions and sub-sub-provisions for clarity of the laws put forth and denoting each segment will receive some obligatory spending.

Specialty Crops – In the context of the Farm Bill, refers to all crops that aren’t commodity crops; in other words, fruits and vegetables we eat.

Subsidies – Financial payments from the government to primarily commodity crop producers. They were first created to protect our basic food supply during the Great Depression, but today subsidies are not necessarily going to the producers who most need assistance. According to EWG, 15 of the top 20 subsidy beneficiaries in 2009 were cotton growers, only 10% of CA producers received 90% of federal payments, and commodity spending outpaced funds for conservation programs by more than 3-to-1.

Sunsetting – Term used to indicate that a specific bill’s funding is running out soon.

Titles – Segments in which the Farm Bill is separated and categorized: Commodity Programs, Conservation, Trade, Nutrition Programs, Credit, Rural Development, Research and Related Matters, Forestry, Energy, Miscellaneous (states fines for violations of animal welfare, school lunch programs, funds a coordinator for rural and underserved areas, etc.).   I mentally switch out Titlefor Chapter because the bill is divided by its Titles like a book is divided by its chapters.

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