When Is A Farm Bill Not A Farm Bill?
This entry was written for and initially appeared on the Kentucky Food and Farm Files blog.
As the lame-duck session of the 112th United States Congress comes to a close, it becomes more and more obvious that a Farm Bill will not be voted on this year.
Last week, in a speech at a forum sponsored by the Farm Journal, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack asked “Why is it that we don’t have a farm bill?” The Secretary then proceeded to answer his own question, saying “It isn’t just the differences of policy. It’s the fact that rural America with a shrinking population is becoming less and less relevant to the politics of this country, and we had better recognize that and we better begin to reverse it.”
I’d have to disagree, Mr. Secretary. If this were a vote on Farm Policy alone, it might not draw as much attention but it might not be as divisive. If Washington were indeed honest, they would admit that cuts to farm programs would be a mere drop in the bucket as it applies to improving the country’s fiscal position.
The problem lives in the fact that the Farm Bill is no longer a Farm Bill. Sec. Vilsack himself admits this, in referring to the measure as a “Food, Farm and Jobs Bill.” With all due respect, Mr. Secretary, I don’t think that even comes close.
Take a hard look at the breakdown of programs included in the omnibus bill and you will find that less than 20 percent of the measure actually deals with farm policy. The remaining 80+ percent bankrolls the Supplemental Needs Assistance Program (SNAP,) school lunches and other social nutrition programs. Sec. Vilsack has argued in the past that these are farm issues because they involve the products farmers grow. I find that link a weak one, at best.
The reasons the Farm Bill has had such a rocky path in congress is primarily because of wrangling over cuts to entitlements represented by the nutrition component. It has little to do with what the Secretary perceives about the political relevance of rural America.
The relevance argument is a valid one, however, but not strictly for the reasons Vilsack blames. The relevance of farmers and ranchers lies largely in their roll of feeding the nation, a fact that urban, suburban and “exurban” America either does not understand or chooses to ignore. We will not change perceptions by being silent. I do agree with the Secretary about the messaging. “We need a proactive message, not a reactive message,” he noted.
A proactive message, however, does not include a public scolding from the administration. Everyone needs to be unified and positive if we are to counter the negative attacks coming from societal segments that would dictate how food is produced. We need you on our side, Mr. Secretary. And, we need a Farm Bill that is really a Farm Bill.