Over the past 80 years, the farm bill has evolved to encompass a broad array of issues, from conservation and environmental protection to food and nutrition, with vast implications for both rural and urban America. The result of the negotiations for the 2012 Farm Bill will have a significant impact on America’s farms and ranches—and on everyone, because we all rely on food, fiber and other benefits from the nation’s farm and ranch land.
As the 2012 Farm Bill debate gets fully underway, we offer this primer on the basics.
Although only a small percentage of the overall federal budget, the farm bill funds everything from conservation to rural development, with the majority of the money going to nutrition assistance programs.
Of the 15 titles in the 2008 Farm Bill, U.S. food assistance programs represent the largest portion—around 75 percent—of farm bill spending. Even in a poor economy with Congress placing a major emphasis on slashing government spending, food programs are not likely to face significant reductions compared to other components of the farm bill.
Out of a U.S. population estimated by the 2010 Census at 308 million people, about 2.2 percent (6.8 million) are farm operators or farm household members.
Farmers and ranchers are central to farm bill programs, and they do work that nearly everyone would agree is vitally important to the nation. But, they increasingly represent a small percentage of the population, which is why American Farmland Trust works to bring together divergent groups with shared interests in support of conservation and our other farm bill priorities.
In the U.S. House of Representatives, it takes 218 members (a simple majority) to pass a farm bill. According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, more than one-third of U.S. House of Representatives members represent fewer than 1,500 farmers in their districts.
Supporters of the many policy areas involved in the farm bill—from nutrition to food policy to conservation—alone do not garner enough support in Congress for an initiative to pass unless they join forces with supporters of other policy initiatives. That’s why bringing together various groups with shared interests in farm and food policy is an important role for American Farmland Trust.
According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, farmers manage 40.8 percent of the nation’s total land area (i.e. the amount of land in all fifty states classified as “land in farms”). That excludes the vast majority of federal grazing lands. When considering the 48 contiguous states, farmers manage 48.7 percent of the land. That means the policies decided in the farm bill have an enormous impact on the nation’s environment and natural resources.
Over the last 25 years, we have lost more than 23 million acres of farmland (an area roughly the size of Indiana) to sprawling development.
The farm bill is a major source of support for farmland protection through the federal Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program (FRPP), which helps states and municipalities bolster their own farmland protection programs. The program is ever more critical at a time when farmers and ranchers are needed to help address the nation’s environmental challenges while growing the food we need.
According to the 2007 U.S. Census of Agriculture, there are more than five times as many farmers at age 65 and older as there are 35 and younger.
Farmers aged 55 and older own nearly 416 million acres of farm and ranch land. That means more than 400 million acres of agricultural land will likely change ownership in the next 20 years.
Increased funding is needed for farm bill programs that can help farmers and ranchers protect their land and pass it on to the next generation, and for programs that help beginning and young farmers enter the business and keep their operations viable.
It is estimated that we need at least an additional 13 million acres of farmland growing fruits and vegetables in order for Americans to meet the minimum daily requirement of fruits and vegetables set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Last year, the USDA’s Report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans called for Americans to incorporate even more fruits and vegetables into their diet. But the majority of the nation’s fruits and vegetables are grown in the path of development. The need for 13 million more acres underscores the need to protect farming on the urban edge and support programs that promote farmers markets, healthy eating and help farmers who grow specialty crops.
In 2011, 50 percent of farmers applying to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, 40 percent of farmers applying to the Grassland Reserve Program, and 33 percent of farmers applying to the Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program were turned away due to lack of funding.
Conservation programs, which help farmers and ranchers protect our natural resources, are chronically underfunded. Although conservation programs represent only seven percent of total agricultural spending, they are often among the first to be targeted for the chopping block during the farm bill process and take some of the largest hits. But they are vastly important to the short- and long-term health and vitality of the nation.
In the Upper Mississippi River basin alone, 36 million acres (62 percent of the cropland in the watershed) are “under-treated,” meaning they currently do not have adequate conservation practices in place to prevent the loss of soil and nutrients, according to a report from the USDA.
The report estimates that a combination of fairly common conservation practices could make substantial progress toward lessening pollution in the watershed. Changes in agricultural practices are among the most cost-effective means for addressing water quality, which is why farm bill conservation programs are such a good investment.
America’s farmers will need to help feed a rising world population on a diminishing land base.
On top of that, rapidly changing environmental conditions and increased natural disasters from climate change could severely impact agricultural production in the future. Not long ago, agricultural economist Michael Roberts told a Capitol Hill briefing that the current global trend of rising average temperatures could dramatically reduce crop yields within a decade—and major crops such as corn and soybeans could be diminished by 20 percent from 2020 to 2049.
That’s why we need increased investments in farmland protection, agricultural research and programs that help farmers and ranchers adopt the most cutting-edge conservation practices.
For more facts about the nation’s farms and food, visit the Farm Bill Facts page.