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Farm-to-Table: Farm Bill 101

Farm to table. Farm to fork. Fork to mouth. Somewhere between my childhood and today, we put down the Cheez Wiz and picked up the organic rainbow chard. We use organic compost and fertilizer and employ nature's own intelligence to help us manage pests. Heritage reigns supreme in vegetable garden seeds and animal breeds raised for meat. It tastes better, more like it used to taste before we watered down the gene pool. By masterminding seeds that made arugula more resistant to heat and drought and pests, we lost flavor. Now we are focused on getting that back.

There's a lot about Farm-to-Table to talk about. If you're like most cooks or foodies, the part of Farm-to-Table that makes its way into your mouth is most important. But there's more to it than that. There's the FARM part: the land, the water, even the legal, the aesthetic, and the weather, the personnel, the equipment. And, of course, the seeds and the animals, how they're raised, fed, slaughtered. There's the TO part (often overlooked): Who's buying it and selling it, where and how and who's making the rules. And there's the TABLE part: getting the food to it, preparing it, the recipes, the chefs and cooks and even setting it. So many questions, all worthy of discussion and dissection. I am fascinated with all of the steps of the process and hope to unpack different parts of it here from time to time, starting today with The Farm Bill.

Why the Farm Bill? Well, we gotta start somewhere. And the Farm Bill is the single most important piece of legislation affecting the food we eat, the kinds of crops American farmers grow, as well as the environment. Not only that, but it's going to be a hot topic over the next year or so because it is up for renewal in 2018. And, not for nothing, but most of us have no idea what's in it.

So, what IS in the Farm Bill? The Farm Bill is divided into twelve parts or titles. As master of the obvious here, I need to point out that any one of these titles covers enough territory to be represented in its own bill. Once you get a sense for this, it's a little overwhelming. The titles include:

1. Commodities: corn, soybeans, rice, wheat, dairy and sugar.

2. Conservation: programs to help farmers with natural resource conservation including requirements for insurance programs

3. Trade: food exports and international food aid programs

4. Nutrition: food stamps (SNAP) and other programs for low-income families

5. Credit: federal loan programs

6. Rural Development: programs that foster rural economic growth via rural businesses and community development

7.  Research, Extension and Related Matters: to support innovation and the next generation of farmers and ranchers

8. Forestry: forest specific conservation with incentives and programs for stewards

9. Energy: crops for biofuel and the installation of renewable energy systems

10. Specialty Crops & Horticulture: fruits and veggies, including organic produce; includes farmers markets and certification programs

11. Crop Insurance: premium subsidies to farmers and insurers 

12. Miscellaneous: advocacy and outreach for new and minority farmers, safety issues, livestock health.

The other thing in The Farm Bill is moolah. And lots of it. The 2014 Farm Bill covered $489 billion in spending. Eighty percent of the Farm Bill, you should know, really has nothing to do with farms or farming, but with food stamps under the nutrition title. (Many farmers believe it should be renamed The Food Bill.) The other 20 percent of the Farm Bill is basically earmarked for agricultural production across three other titles including crop insurance, conservation and farm commodity support. The other 8 titles receive much smaller allocations.

What does all this mean? Well, there's generally very little in the Farm Bill that helps the new and smaller farmers, the ones growing the organic arugula, heirloom tomatoes and heritage guinea fowl that grace many a Farm-to-Table gathering. While there's some support at lower levels that can have an impact on smaller operations, US farm policy benefits mostly agribusiness and not small scale or organic farmers. Hmmm.

Who's Working on It? The Senate and House Committees on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry are primarily responsible for drafting The Farm Bill.  From the Senate, 11 Republicans and 9 Democrats are involved, including New York's Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D). From the House, 26 Republicans and 18 Democrats are on the committee including New York's Sean Patrick Maloney (D, 18th District). The 19th District representative used to serve on it too, but he's since passed the torch to a new representative who will serve on the Ag Committee, but not directly on as part of the Farm Bill yet. Nevertheless, if you're in the Catskills, you might want to stay tuned in to where Representative John Faso (R) stands on Farm Bill issues. 

NY's Senator Gillibrand has a detailed plan outlining her priorities for New York in the Farm Bill that include the following: dairy reform, supporting specialty crops (1/3 of New York's agricultural industry), connecting fresh produce with new markets, increasing access to farmers' markets, improving conservation, fortifying community supported agriculture (CSAs), increasing access to credit, ending term limits for Food Service Agency (FSA) support, expanding access to rural broadband and saving food stamps from budget cuts. 

In addition to our nation's elected officials, key industry groups -- including the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Corn Growers Association, and the International Dairy Foods Association and advocacy organizations such as the Center for Rural Affairs, the Environmental Working Group, and the Food Research and Action Center -- also contribute to shaping the Farm Bill.

What's the Process? The Farm Bill began in 1933 under FDR's New Deal in an effort to help struggling farmers. At that time, farmers were paid NOT to produce and also to kill off surplus livestock in order to recalibrate market prices. The Farm Bill has evolved since then, and has, for some time, focused its priorities on food stamps, subsidies and insurance.

The Farm Bill is renewed every four years. Except when it's not. The 2008 Farm Bill was actually renewed two years late in 2014. The next iteration is expected to be renewed in 2018, unless it's not.  When you look inside the process for getting such a gigantic piece of omnibus legislation passed, you can see why it takes so long. In a nutshell, the Farm Bill starts with the Reauthorization Phase, which includes hearing and committee meetings and drafts, debates over all the details on the floor of Congress, a conference with key Senators and Representatives, back to the floor and then to the White House. Are you tired yet? That's just Phase 1. Next it goes to Appropriations, then to Administration or Rulemaking and finally to Outreach and Evaluation to make sure it's being used properly and effectively.  Whew!

Now What?  Well, if you care about the food you eat and where your federal dollars are going to support the farmers who grow it, it would be a good idea to tune in to the Farm Bill process. Your voice can support your tastebuds and your health, by speaking out as an informed citizen. So, stay tuned to the 2018 Farm Bill renewal. It plays a role in our nation's food on the grand scale and has components that can trickle down to the farm near you and the plate even closer. 

Getting hungry, xoxo farmgirl

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