Is it time to rethink how the farm bill works?
Congress is gearing up for yet another fight over the farm bill.
The massive piece of legislation is projected to hit more than one trillion dollars this year for the first time in history.
Farmers say they need the support more than ever. But others say there’s a clear place to cut costs: government farm subsidies.
“We still pay too much to the wrong people to grow the wrong food in the wrong places and often at the wrong time,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer says.
Today, On Point: Is it time to rethink how the farm bill works and who it’s for?
Congressman Earl Blumenauer, U.S. representative for Oregon’s 3rd Congressional district since 1996.
Pete Kronberg, rancher in Forbes, North Dakota.
Rob Larew, president of the National Farmers Union.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti.
REP. THOMPSON: Thank you so much and welcome, everybody to this 2023 farm bill listening session.
CHAKRABARTI: For months, Congressman Glenn “G.T.” Thompson has been traveling across the United States. He represents Pennsylvania’s 15th congressional district. He’s also chair of the House Committee on Agriculture.
THOMPSON: This is in the spirit of agriculture which is really appreciating what God has given us. We’re trying to use that in terms of two ears and one mouth. And that’s why the focus today is on listening. It’s on hearing from you.
CHAKRABARTI: Thompson’s listening to farmers, ranchers, foresters and others about their thoughts on the U.S. farm bill. One of the nation’s largest bills that’s up for reauthorization every five year. The current farm bill is set to expire at the end of this month.
On his listening tour, Thompson’s heard from people in Freeport, Maine; Waco, Texas; La Crosse, Wisconsin – the list goes on. Here’s Richard Syverson, the head of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, at a session in Morgan, Minnesota:
RICHARD SYVERSON: As you craft this 2023 farm bill, please first do no harm to crop insurance. It is the cornerstone of the farm safety net.
CHAKRABARTI: The nation’s first ever farm bill – then called the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 – was a New Deal era concept focused on commodity price support and relief for farmers. In short, the law offered farmers subsidies in exchange for limiting their crops so that crop prices overall could increase.
It made sense at the time as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s efforts to restructure and restore the U.S. economy.
As time went on, farming and food legislation broadened its reach. In 1973, the Nixon Administration passed the Agricultural and Consumer Protection Act … which might be considered the first true omnibus farm bill. Because it went far beyond commodity programs, and into disaster payments, rural development, and supplemental food programs.
Now, the farm bill is a behemoth. The Congressional Budget Office predicts that if reauthorized, this year’s farm bill could, for the first time ever, reach 1.5 trillion dollars of federal spending over 10 years.
But where exactly is that money going? In 2023, are the barnacles of habit, outdated assumptions, and practices still clinging to bill? Let’s imagine for a moment – if a Farm Bill were to be rewritten from the ground up to serve 21st century farmers, ranchers, and the nation they feed, what would that Farm Bill look like?
Joining us today is Congressman Earl Blumenauer. He’s U.S. Representative for Oregon’s 3rd congressional district, an office he’s held since 1996. Congressman Blumenauer, welcome to On Point.
EARL BLUMENAUER: Thank you, Meghna.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so tell me what interest does an Oregon congressman have, other than you have to cast a vote, in you’ve been talking about restructuring the entire farm bill for some time, so tell me what your interest is in that.
BLUMENAUER: My interest is to be able to have a policy that reflects the needs, not just of farmers, but the environment. People who eat the trillion-dollar supply chain that was, had its vulnerabilities exposed during the coronavirus crisis.
We’ve been, I think, pretty much frozen in time in terms of comprehensive approaches to reform. I’ve been working at this, chipping away for over 25 years that I’ve been in Congress. But I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the real problems we have is that people do not have a sense of what the farm bill could be.
The focus has been on individual provisions, what people want more or less of. I spent two years traveling around Oregon asking what would a farm bill look like if it was just for Oregon or for the Oregon State University College of Agriculture? For your community. And what I got back in terms of that feedback was something that is radically different than the behemoth that you’re talking about.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Now you helped answer the question I was about to ask, because we’ve got listeners all over the country, and I just imagine some of them are like, why are you talking to an Oregon congressman about the farm bill versus say, Chuck Grassley from Iowa. But you’ve been hammering away at this for a long time, which is, from the perspective of we need something brand new, which is why we’re delighted to have you on today.
And plus, there are a lot of farmers, foresters, and ranchers in Oregon. Okay. Obviously, this thing is so huge that we’re not going to have time to really dissect each individual piece of the farm bill. That’s a task of 1,000 hours. But if you were to focus on the first place that you would use a select all and delete method to rebuilding the farm bill, where would it be?
BLUMENAUER: First of all, just let me comment what you’re right in terms of if we were going to drill down over all of these provisions, we’d be hopelessly lost, and we don’t have enough hours in the day all week to be able to do it. That’s one of the reasons the farm bill has been so impervious to comprehensive reform.
There’s so much. The fabled Marion Nestle, the nutrition expert from NYU, one year tried to teach a seminar on the farm bill because she realized she didn’t fully understand it, and the conclusion was there’s nobody who really understands it. There are people that understand their specific little piece, which they will fight to the death to defend and will try to expand. But the comprehensive needs of the environment, of people who eat, health, farmers and ranchers, gets lost in the details.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. I’m seeing here that when the farm bill lands on senators and Congress, members of Congress’s desks, it’s 1,000 pages long.
CHAKRABARTI: Is that right?
BLUMENAUER: It’s hopelessly complex. Nobody would have the time to be able to actually sort through it in detail, which it’s, I think it’s why it’s important for people to speak out about what matters to them. We’re at an interesting inflection point. He has been trying to pull these things together, but he faces a really divided Congress now.
Both in terms of partisanship. Competing interests. And there are dramatic differences from state to state. I think there’s an opportunity here for us to use this complexity in these circumstances to really try and achieve some fundamental change on things that shouldn’t be controversial.
BLUMENAUER: Much of what we’ll talk about this morning. There’s not much disagreement when you talk to individual farmers and ranchers or people who eat.
CHAKRABARTI: Just to put a point, a finer point on what you said. Not directly related to the farm bill per se, but it is quite bracing to hear a member of Congress say, with these massive omnibus bills, they’re so big that it’s nearly impossible for any one person to fully understand the whole thing.
So members of Congress are essentially voting on their one little slice, maybe their one little subsection of a chapter. Of, a trillion-and-a-half-dollar bill. So a little insight to how the sausage is made, if I can use that metaphor. Not really inspiring, if I can be honest, representative. But so let’s go back to the farm bill in particular.
Okay. In order to talk about what we would build, I do want to just hear you describe briefly, one or two of the parts that you would think would be, would need the most revision or total rethink.
BLUMENAUER: First and foremost, it’s what we do with the crop insurance, at the top of the hour, you had somebody say, “Keep your hands off that, don’t change it.” The crop insurance program has been resistant to reform. It’s dominated by a handful of companies, many foreign the amount that we pay to the brokers is astounding, and the system is such that most of the benefit flows to half a dozen states for the large commodities that frankly are very generously supported.
There’s virtually nothing for states like mine, but California and Florida that have very diverse bases of agriculture. Those folks from nursery to orchards, nuts and berries, they don’t have a meaningful program, but there’s a massive amount of money that is locked into the status quo.
CHAKRABARTI: So those commodities that you’re talking about, corn, rice, soy, wheat, cotton, interestingly and peanuts. So is that just a historical hangover from when those commodity supports first came in? I don’t know if we should be reaching back as far as 1933.
BLUMENAUER: There’s a lot of history to be sure and politics in terms of peanuts and cotton, corn. It’s huge in the upper Midwest, which has played an outside role in our nation’s politics. Touching corn subsidies is the third rail for Iowa politics, and they’ve been very zealous in protecting the support, and for ethanol.
It is indescribable in terms of the alignment of these forces, but how much at variance, they are for the troubles that farmers and ranchers face. The farm country is in crisis. More bankruptcies, we’re losing family farms. The suicide rate for farmers rivals that of the military and actually is higher.
We’ve got some real problems and policy should help straighten it out, not perpetuate it.
CHAKRABARTI: And just to be clear, when we say crop insurance or subsidies, are those interchangeable or are they different things actually?
BLUMENAUER: There are other subsidies beyond crop insurance. There’s an elaborate system that protects cotton that is incomprehensible.
Sugar is an area that is protected, in terms of American consumers pay more than twice the world price for sugar. Countries, some of them in our own hemisphere that are unstable, can’t freely import sugar to protect domestic confectionary. It’s a web of interconnected subsidies.
CHAKRABARTI: And it’s interesting because some of these subsidies, I think what people see as directly contributing to, as you were mentioning, the consolidation of farms, the squeezing out of small farmers. We’ll talk a lot more about that when we come back. So today we’re joined by Congressman Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, and he, for years, has been thinking about what would the farm bill look like if we rewrote it from scratch? More in a moment.
Okay, so back to today’s conversation. We’re joined by Congressman Earl Blumenauer, of Oregon’s third Congressional District. He has been thinking, he and other members of Congress have been thinking, for years, about does the farm bill actually serve the farmers, ranchers, foresters, and the people that all of those farmers and ranchers feed in the United States to the best of its ability, given what America is in 2023.
And if not, how should we rethink the farm bill? So, congressman, I want to just make clear, connect the dots here on something that you said. That the farm bill perversely, incentivizes the consolidation of American farms, right? And the narrowing of the kind of crops that are grown on a large scale, right?
So the thinking is this, that because of the subsidies, because of the supports for those six commodity crops, it incentivizes farmers to plant those crops, right? Because the risk goes down, but then if you’re monoculturing a lot of land, you need to also have a lot of acres in which to do that.
That requires more and bigger farm equipment, more money to get the seeds in the ground, et cetera. And when you get to those issues of scale it’s just helpful to have a bigger farm. You get to a certain point there. And then agribusiness comes in, essentially. And is that sort of the line of thinking?
BLUMENAUER: Absolutely. It is a radical adjustment that works to the detriment of what we used to say, what we call family farms. But today, relatively large parcels are really struggling. The chemical inputs, the mechanical inputs, the uncertainty. They’re ruling the dice, but for the vast majority of family farmers they don’t have the support. In Oregon it’s 87% of farmers and ranchers get nothing from the federal government. They’re competing other areas of agriculture, that is in fact heavily subsidized and at a scale. Now there are people who are courageously fighting back, and you’ve talked to some of them on your program. But they don’t get the federal support.
And literally the federal government is subsidizing a diet that makes Americans sick. Drives them in a direction that relies heavily on chemical input, large mechanization, large price. And the average farmer now is almost 60 years of age. We don’t have policies that really help farmers plan for the future.
BLUMENAUER: And involve young people who desperately would like to farm.
CHAKRABARTI: Another read of what subsidies have helped create in terms of the American agriculture business is actually, perhaps it’s a good thing. Because, so this is the counter argument I’m offering you, congressman. Because look, there are more than, there’s what, 8 billion people on planet Earth right now. The United States doesn’t just feed Americans, but we feed a lot of those, the people around the world. The scale comes out of necessity. You need to have big farms to create the kind of volume, commodity volume that’s necessary to feed people around the world.
So in that sense, the system is working.
BLUMENAUER: But we are pursuing strategies that are not sustainable. We are growing cotton in the desert in Arizona, which is heavily subsidized by the way, both in terms of the water and that we prop up the price of cotton. It makes it hard for a competing interest to be able to work in this marketplace.
And the climate crisis is changing, growing seasons and stresses on inputs and making it harder and more expensive. Particularly for farmers that want to practice regenerative agriculture. Want to be involved in the organic space, being able to go beyond the monoculture and the industrialized production of meat.
Traps them in a cycle, which is not necessarily what American consumers want or need.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. You were very correct when you said that we have talked to farmers and ranchers who are living this reality. Right now. And also in the past, we’ve done many shows about farming and ranching and particularly big agribusiness in the United States.
But I want to hear a couple of more voices of people who are herding the cattle and working the crops here. Congressman, if you could just listen along with me, one of the people that we’ve recently spoke to is Pete Kronberg.
He’s a rancher in Forbes, North Dakota. It’s right on the border between North and South Dakota. He and his dad run their ranch on about 370 acres of grassland.
PETE KRONBERG: Right now, we got about 660 head of sheep. 80, 85 head of cows, maybe, something like that.
CHAKRABARTI: Kronberg says he’s received some federal money to help with his ranching business, around $300,000 in total over the years, but he says that’s nothing compared to the subsidies that big farms receive both in direct subsidies and indirect ones, like what we’ve been talking about, like crop insurance.
In fact, Kronberg’s own ranch is surrounded by a large farm that mostly grows corn and soybeans.
KRONBERG: If I look at a piece of land that’s right next to me, neighbor rents, if there’s a bad year there, like there’s hail, or it’s droughty, or it floods, they’re still going to make money even though they didn’t actually produce anything necessarily.
And that’s just because of the federal crop insurance, the subsidies, if the federal subsidy was not there, that piece would not be farmed, period. That’d be in pasture, which means either they’d be ranching it or I would be, but they almost definitely wouldn’t be farming it because they couldn’t afford to, they couldn’t afford the risk.
CHAKRABARTI: Kronberg says these subsidies mean fewer, bigger farms are taking over the industry, and he believes that consolidation makes it harder for new farmers to break into the business. And as a rancher, Kronberg also worries about the environmental effects of so much grassland being turned into farmland.
He says the farm bill funded conservation programs like the Conservation Reserve Program or CRP aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.
KRONBERG: The amount of actual conservation, worthwhile conservation that happens for the dollars they spend? Minimal, they planted it at the corn and soybeans, it goes backwards on them because it doesn’t work there. It creates soil problems, essentially water problems, is what it creates. They get to the point where they can’t make money. Then they go, “Hey, can I put this in CRP? And they go, “Yep, put it in there.” So instead of them losing that acreage and it going back to say me or someone and doing something economically useful with it, which in that case is going to be grass.
They get paid to put it in there and then do nothing.
CHAKRABARTI: But given how huge the Farm Bill is, it’s obviously no surprise that views on its purpose and efficacy differ wildly across the country. Rob Larew is president of the National Farmers Union, a group that represents 200,000 family farmers, fishers and ranchers, and he looks much further upstream, way further upstream to explain farm consolidation all the way to the giant agribusinesses, specifically the few meat packers who control the U.S. beef industry.
ROB LAREW: There are so many forces at play, some of which had to do with just huge, almost pure monopolies in agriculture in terms of who’s buying the beef and processing the beef, who is supplying the seed.
What that does in and of itself is just incentivize farms getting bigger and bigger. You have on top of that a lot of other conditions such as the cost of farmland in general that makes existing farmers unable to expand or innovate.
CHAKRABARTI: So to slow consolidation, members of Congress, such as Iowa’s Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, he’s spent years pushing for a cap on farm subsidies.
The limit is currently $125,000 in crop subsidies per farmer per year. Grassley wants to keep that and add another $250,000 cap per farm operation. Grassley believes that under the current system, subsidies help big farming businesses get bigger and push out small farmers. Here he is at a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing in March.
GRASSLEY: The 2018 Farm Bill was intentionally written to help the largest farmers receive sometimes millions of dollars of subsidy from the federal government each year. You’ve heard the figure of 10% of the biggest farmers getting 70% of the benefits out of the farm program. I’m asking that you would now work with me to stop this needless abuse of taxpayers’ dollars.
CHAKRABARTI: Larew, president of the National Farmers Union says his group is open to the idea of another cap.
LAREW: National Farmers Union supports limits on some of the payments and subsidies within the farm bill that’s limited to what we might consider a family farm size operation. Now, I will say that family farm sized operation can look really different when you’re in Western North Dakota or in my home area with a farm in Southern West Virginia.
CHAKRABARTI: Rob Larew also emphasizes putting crops in the ground is a huge investment for farmers who he says are already operating on thin margins. In general, he says things like subsidized crop insurance is essential.
LAREW: We aren’t getting any new farmland out there. And so the farmland that we have right now to help feed and clothe folks here in the U.S. and around the world is critically important.
I think the pandemic actually showed the importance of making sure that we have farmers and ranchers on the land continuing to produce food. On top of that, we also know that there are huge climate challenges facing us today and into the future, and farmers we know are going to be an important part of that solution.
CHAKRABARTI: Back in North Dakota, rancher Pete Kronberg thinks that $125,000 and those that proposed $250,000 limit on farm subsidies simply do not go far enough.
KRONBERG: It’s still a lot of money. If you’ve got a young person starting out, they’re not going to get. hit that cap, but they will be competing against people who do, they’re going to end up on the short end of that stick every time.
So you really can’t, if you do it, it has to be very little and very targeted.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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