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A Brief History of the 2012 Farm Bill

We get a lot of questions about exactly what went down with the Farm Bill last year.  (Honestly, it was head-spinning confusion even for seasoned policy experts.)  To help shed a little light, here’s a play-by-play recap:

For starters, what is the Farm Bill and how does it affect me?

The Farm Bill is an omnibus bill (that is, one that incorporates many different topics) passed every five-ish years by the US Congress and dictating US food and farm policy on the federal level.  It covers everything from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to conservation to crop insurance and subsidies.  Most important for our purposes, it dictates spending on all the USDA programs that help the next generation of American growers thrive.  This includes such programs as:

  • Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, which supports education programs for beginning farmers and ranchers
  • Farm Service Agency programming, including loans for farmers to purchase land and run their operations
  • Conservation Stewardship Program, which helps to encourage farmers to install more ecologically sound systems that would otherwise be cost-prohibitive
  • and many more (here’s a longer list, if you are interested in reading further)

How is the Farm Bill created?

Like any such bill, the Farm Bill gets crafted simultaneously in the House and Senate Agriculture Committees.  (See graphic on right.)  This process ideally takes place long before the currently operating bill is set to expire.  Once each of those proposals make it through their respective committees, they are introduced to the houses of Congress as a whole.  There they are debated and eventually passed.  Finally the two bills, which most likely differ on some points, are reconciled in conference (ie, a joint committee compares the two and comes up with a compromise).  Both houses approve the final bill and then it goes to the President’s desk!  Simple, right?

Now let’s look at the 2012 Farm Bill, a case study in how not to produce a bill.

2012 Farm Bill Timeline

2008: Congress passes the 2008 Farm Bill, set to expire September 30th, 2012.

flash forward four years…

Early 2012:  The House and Senate begin “marking up” a Farm Bill.  In non-technical terms, they begin debating and writing the new bill.  Concerns start to be expressed that in the highly polarized political climate of the day and with a mandate for all bills to reduce spending, it won’t be easy to pass a bill (plus it’s an election year, to boot!)

April 26, 2012: The Senate Agriculture Committee passes their Farm Bill proposal 16-5.  While not perfect, it’s pretty good for beginning farmers, given the political climate.

June 21, 2012: The Senate as a whole then passes its version of the Farm Bill 64-35.  Meanwhile the House Agriculture Committee continues to delay, as concerns with health care law trump other issues.

July 12, 2012: The House Agriculture Committee approves its own Farm Bill with a vote of 35-11.  The bill has many more cuts than the Senate version, including cuts to nutrition, conservation, and beginning farmer programs.

late July, 2012: Speaker of the House John Boehner states concerns with the House Ag Committee’s bill and expresses doubt that it will come to a vote in the House before September 30th, when the old Farm Bill expires.

even later in July, 2012: Many House members publicly push for Boehner to allow the bill to come to a vote.

at the very end of July: The House instead tries to pass a one-year extension of the current bill that cuts a lot of spending for beginning farmer and other important programs.  The bill is immediately pulled, given widespread opposition to it.

August 10th, 2012: Congress goes on recess without any Farm Bill in place.  Meanwhile, a summer drought
destroys crops across the Midwest and sends feed prices soaring.  Congress was unable to pass an emergency relief package before leaving for recess, so the USDA has its hands tied in terms of being able to help.

August 12th, 2012: Congress comes back from recess, with only eight working days before the end of the month’s session.  Hopes for beating the expiration deadline evaporate.

October 1st, 2012: The Farm Bill expires.  Nothing has been put in place to replace it.  Programs are affected differently, depending on the specifics of where their funding comes from and how they operate:

  • Thanks to the Continuing Resolution that is was recently passed (this is a six-month general budget that Congress passed on September 20th, good through March 27, 2013) SNAP and crop insurance are unaffected until then.
  • Some programs, such as price supports for milk, are good until the end of the year because they were written to cover the entire calendar year.
  • Many programs, however, are left with no money.  This includes the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, Organic Cost-share, Value-Added Producer Grants, and a whole slew of other great programs.

October, November, and early December, 2012: NYFC and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, among many others, repeatedly push for Congress to pass a bill.  (Thanks to those of you who made phone calls, sent letters, and signed petitions!)

December 29th 2012: With only a few days left, Senate Ag Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow and House Ag Committee Chair Frank Lucas work out a reasonable one-year extension of the Farm Bill.  Time is short: at the end of the year many more programs will lose their funding (and some, such as milk supports, will revert to 1949 law and prices will skyrocket).  NYFC supports the extension: read the press release here.

December 31st, 2012: Undercutting Stabenow’s and Lucas’s work, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Vice President Biden work out an alternate deal that gets included in the eleventh-hour fiscal cliff bill.  The extension cuts funding to a huge range of beginning farmer programs and makes none of the other necessary reforms.  Read NYFC’s coverage here.


And so there it is!  In less than one thousand words, a concise history of the 2012 Farm Bill.  As the winter of 2013 wears on, both the Senate and House are already starting to think about the next Farm Bill.  Both sides say they are committed to passing a real five-year bill before September 30th, when the current extension expires.  (I know, it sounds like deja vu).  Meanwhile, NYFC will fight like hell for the amazing programs that were left behind.
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