The “Farm Bill” is coming up for renewal. For the uninformed and that is most of us, the Agricultural Act of 2014 (2014 Farm Bill) is made up of 12 titles governing a wide range of food- and agriculture-related policy areas and impacts the food we eat, hunger in America, and the health of our lands and waterways. The Congressional Budget Office said that the total cost of the last Farm Bill would be $489 billion over its 5 year life (2014-2018). That is almost $98 billion a year.
That is because the Farm Bill matters. The Farm Bill impacts everything about our food system: what crops get subsidized, how much foods cost, how land is used. Though the bulk of the dollars ensures low-income Americans have enough to eat, the Farm Bill determines what is available for all of us to eat. Yet few of us understand what is in the bill and how it works. Though I deal with conservation programs, I am among the many.
According to Marion Nestle a former Professor, of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, at New York University, from which she recently retired, 80% of farm subsidies go to corn, grains and soy oil, dairy gets 3%, livestock: 2%, fruits and vegetables: get less than 1%, tobacco 2%, and cotton: 13%. Dr. Nestle is the author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health and Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety as well as 6 other really worthwhile books. The little know farm bill has been at the center of American politics for several generations.
The American political system is divided by urban and rural regionalism. Many of the world views that separate us have more to do with whether we live in urban or rural areas than anything else. This has been true since the 1960’s, but it seems much more stark now and our divisions are greater than ever before. The joining of SNAP (food stamps) and agricultural subsidies and programs ensures that Congress can muster enough votes to pass both farm supports and SNAP which might not pass as bills on their own. A bit of politics in the 1960’s has successfully brought us all together to hate and support the the farm bill.
The Farm Bill and its implications are a mess. The Department of Agriculture farm crop insurance, conservation, research and outreach essential to our food system and the survival of family farms; and the assistance to households classified as food insecure are both essential. According to a 2015 White House fact sheet, SNAP helps about 46 million low-income Americans put food on the table. Eliminating hunger in the United States is a moral imperative for our nation.
We were once a nation of farmers, today there are about 2,062,000 farms in the United States. Of these farms 89.7% are classified as small family farms, 6.1% are midsize family farms, 2.9% are large family farms and only 1.3% are non-family farms. Ninety percent of farms are small, and these farms accounted for 48% of the land operated by farms in 2015, but account for only 24% of food production. Large million-dollar farms accounted for half of farm production in 2015, up from a third in 1991.
Nevertheless, small family farms accounted for 57% of poultry and 52% of hay production. Family farms of various types together accounted for 98.7% of farms and 89% of production in 2015. Since 1991, agricultural production has shifted to million-dollar farms both family and non-family farms.
Despite the image carried by most people, farm households in general are not low income when compared with all U.S. households and U.S. households with a self-employed head. Median household income for farmers is higher for each size of farm category than median income for all U.S. households in 2015 ($51,700).