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Farm program changes in the farm bill

The farm bill governs everything from dairy policy to crop insurance. (File: Luke Runyon/Harvest Public Media)
The farm bill governs everything from dairy policy to crop insurance. (File: Luke Runyon/Harvest Public Media)

The farm bill being discussed in the U.S. House of Representatives contains legislation having to do with all aspects of how Americans put food on their dinner tables.

About 80 percent of the bill deals with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), what we often call “food stamps.” Other portions of the legislation, though, address policy governing the farms that create this food.  

The farm bill is huge legislation – it will cost about $500 billion to implement over five years – and is often confusing. The Senate passed its version of the farm bill earlier this month, now it’s the House’s turn.

In a special series of joint broadcasts, our partners at KCUR in Kansas City and Iowa Public Radio are focusing on the farm bill and what it means for all of us. On Wednesday, the broadcast looked at what elements of this legislation affect the growth and production of the food all of us eat.  Here are some key points:

Crop insurance will expand

Farming is like gambling in that farmers are at the mercy of the weather, and a year of excess rain or lack thereof can ruin a farmer’s yield. That is why crop insurance is vital to farmers, because it provides assistance when the yield falls short of the norm.

Wayne Johnson, a farmer from Winnebago County in Iowa, said he is filing a $1 million crop insurance claim because he hasn’t planted 60 percent of his corn crop due to the flooding in Iowa this year. For Johnson, who has 16 employees and 4,000 acres, his insurance claim is necessary to keep the farm in business.

One of the most important aspects of the farm bill being debated in Washington is that it expands the crop insurance program and makes it the most important part of farm policy.

Eric Sorensen, vice president of Crop Insurance Services for Agribusiness Insurance Services, says the expansion to crop insurance is necessary because it not only insures farmers and their crops but the availability of our food.

“Whether you’re directly involved in agriculture or not, food costs affect us all,” Sorensen said.

Still, crop insurance has its critics.

“It’s a great risk management tool, but we don’t need to subsidize it as much,” said Bruce Babcock, a professor of economics at Iowa State University.

Funding for the Conservation Reserve Program will shrink

Farming similar crops on the same land year after year takes its toll on the ground. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is an important element of conservation policy contained in the farm bill. In CRP, farmers sign a 10-15 year contract to take their land out of production and the government will pay them while the land is not in use.

New farm bill legislation will decrease CRP funding and cap the total amount of land allowed in the program to around 25 million acres. To put that in perspective, between Kansas, Missouri and Iowa, there is 5 million acres of land in CRP.

These cuts in CRP are coming at a time when farmers who already signed a contract to keep land in CRP are buying it out so they can take advantage of high commodity prices.

The House started work on the farm bill this week. If a bill passes, House and Senate negotiators will have to iron-out differences this summer. Current farm bill legislation expires on Sept. 30.

More: What you should know about the food stamps debate