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Programs > Agriculture & Food: Focus on the Farm Bill > A Primer on the Farm Bill

A Primer on the Farm Bill

The U.S. Farm Bill is reauthorized about every five years in a legislative process that reviews, revises and extends components of federal law regarding farm, food assistance, conservation and various rural programs. This periodic process allows for public evaluation of policies, and so requires not only attention by Senate and House Agriculture committees, but participation from diverse interest groups and even the general public.
History: There have been seven comprehensive, or omnibus, farm bills since the mid-1970s:
1977, 1981, 1985, 1990, 1996, 2002, and the current one, 2008.
Farm legislation prior to that followed from the original piece of legislation passed in 1933 during the throes of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl period. These earlier bills were passed in between 1938 and 1973.
If new legislation is not enacted before expiration of the current Farm Bill, farm law will revert to 1949 provisions (known as “permanent legislation” of U.S. agricultural policy). The old provisions have little relevance to American agriculture today. This automatic reversion basically ensures periodic review and enactment of new farm policy every five to six years.
Cost: Total Farm Bill cost for the 2008-2012 period was originally expected to be $284 billion, as projected by the Congressional Budget Office. Recent estimates now show the cost to be closer to $409 billion, mainly due to a critical need for Nutrition assistance programs (food stamps) during the severe economic downturn over the same period of time. Despite the higher cost, these amounts represent less than 1% of the total U.S. federal budget.
Major costs within the Farm Bill during its five-year period, 2008-2012:
* Nutrition Programs (Title IV): initially $188.9 billion (66.5%), now expected to be $314.3 billion
* Commodity Programs (Title I): initially $41.6 billion (14.6%), now expected to be lower
* Conservation Programs (Title II): initially $24.1 billion (8.5%), no significant change
* Crop Insurance (Title XII): initially $21.9 billion (7.7%), now expected to be higher
* All other programs & titles: initially $7.4 billion (2.6%), no significant change
Components of the Farm Bill
Farm bills consist of multiple sections called “titles.” The current bill has 15: the comprehensive package of laws governs the federal provision of farm programs, food assistance and crop insurance, and sets federal policy for agricultural trade, marketing, and rural development.
The 2008 Farm Bill expires by October 1 of this year, so the new 2012 Farm Bill is currently in the process of Congressional hearings and review. Once the Senate and House Agriculture committees issue their respective draft bills, we will know their proposed changes (if any) to current policies.
Below is a quick run-through of the existing legislation and its 15 titles – accompanied by NCRLC’s particular concern and what policy changes we believe are needed.
  • Title I: Commodity Programs 
This title is the heart of the Farm Bill in the sense it was designed to provide an economic “safety net” for farmers and thereby help maintain a strong rural economy. Title I authorizes farm commodity supports for certain major crops, the “big five” being corn, wheat, rice, cotton and soybeans. Financial supports include annual Direct payments, which are automatic and based on production acreage. (That is, the larger the farm, the more dollars.)
Other payments occur when commodity prices fall below prescribed levels; these are known as Counter-Cyclical payments and Marketing Assistance Loan program payments. (Farm prices have been high, so these support programs have not been needed over the past few years.) The Commodity title also authorizes Dairy programs (i.e., dairy price support and the Milk Income Loss Contract programs) and the Sugar program (which mandates 85% market share for domestic sugar).
Another way to look at these farm payments is this: roughly just one-quarter of the 2.1 million farms in the continental United States receive commodity-related payments. Fruit and vegetable growers, nut tree farmers, and livestock operations do not receive such payments.
NCRLC policy position: Commodity programs are acceptable to the extent that payments are limited in how much any single farm operation or entity receives. We side with those who support an annual cap of $250,000 per farm, as has been often proposed in the past but always voted down in Congress.
NCRLC would like to see farm payments properly serving their original purpose as a “safety net” for the benefit of farm families. When large and profitable operations exploit loopholes for additional government payments, then these loopholes must be closed.
NCRLC also favors a requirement of conservation compliance in order to receive any kind of farm support payment from the federal government.
Learn more about our perspective at Commodity programs.
  • Title II: Conservation 
An essential part of agricultural policy is protecting the soil, water and other resources that allow for ample production year after year. Title II authorizes and establishes USDA voluntary Conservation programs that provide support to farmers for land retirement, conservation easements, and sound conservation practices on agricultural land. By complying with these conservation requirements, farmers and ranchers are eligible for full USDA program benefits.
NCRLC policy position: NCRLC strongly supports the wide range of Conservation programs provided by the Farm Bill. We are also strong advocates for full funding of Conservation programs. Too readily do politicians raid or zero out these programs when making budget cuts.
Learn more about our perspective on Conservation programs.
  • Title III: Trade & Aid
This title authorizes USDA’s foreign food aid, export market development, and export credit guarantee programs and gives authority for P.L.480 food aid program, Food for Progress, and the McGovern-Dole International School Feeding and Child Nutrition Program.
NCRLC policy position: NCRLC defers to the position of Catholic Relief Services.
Learn more about our perspective on World Trade (coming soon).
  • Title IV: Nutrition 
Reauthorizes and provides administration of, eligibility for, and benefits under the Food Stamp program, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and for The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). 
NCRLC policy position: NCRLC defers to the position of Catholic Charities USA. [Click here to see their letter to Congress]
Learn more about our NCRLC perspective at Nutrition and Food Assistance.
  • Title V: Credit 
Authorizes two government-related farm lenders, the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) and the Farm Credit System (FCS).
NCRLC does not take a strong position on this title, other than to express support for strengthening farm credit options and access, including availability of farm financing.
  • Title VI: Rural Development 
Authorizes rural development loan and grant programs, includes provisions for rural broadband, and provides technical and financial assistance for rural businesses. 
NCRLC policy position: NCRLC joins with the Campaign for Renewed Rural America  for a stronger Rural Development title in the Farm Bill. Rural America is more than agriculture and forestry, so we would like to see a greater emphasis on rural economic and community development initiatives, including programs that facilitate rural entrepreneurship.
Learn more about our perspective at Rural Development.
  • Title VII: Research 
Authorizes the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), Economic Research Service (ERS), and National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). In 2008, this title also established the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. 
NCRLC policy position: Support for increased research that fosters organic and sustainable agriculture systems and sustainable economic and community development.
  • Title VIII: Forestry 
Authorizes forestry programs and governs the U.S. Forestry Service, an agency of the USDA.
  • Title IX: Energy 
This title funds Federal agency programs and grants for procurement of biobased products, construction of advanced biofuel refineries, biomass research and energy efficiency improvements. 
NCRLC policy position: (coming soon)
Learn more about our perspective at Renewable Energy.
  • Title X: Horticulture and Organic Agriculture
New in the 2008 Farm Bill, this title provided funds to state agriculture departments for the marketing and promotion of “specialty crops” which is the catch-all name for fruits, vegetables and non-Commodity crops identified in Title I. This new title of the Farm Bill also provided new mandatory funding for farmers’ markets and transitioning producers to organic production, and provided for price reporting and organic data collection. 
NCRLC policy position: Create program options that fully recognize the inherent value of sustainable and organic farming systems, particularly in addressing climate change.
  • Title XI: Livestock 
A new farm bill title covering livestock and poultry production, including provisions that amend existing laws governing livestock and poultry marketing and competition, country-of-origin labeling requirements for retailers, and meat and poultry state inspections, among other provisions. 
NCRLC policy position: Ensure fair and competitive agricultural markets which are viable over the long-term.
Learn more about our perspective at Market Concentration & Livestock Operations.
  • Title XII: Crop Insurance and Disaster Assistance Programs
Authorizes the Federal Crop Insurance Program which provides subsidies to insurance companies for selling and servicing crop insurance policies, and subsidizes insurance policy premiums paid by producers. 
NCRLC policy position: Create workable crop or revenue insurance options for diversified farming operations, value-added agriculture, organic agriculture, and new and beginning farmers. 
Learn more about our perspective at Crop Insurance. (coming soon)
  • Title XIII: Commodity Futures 
A new farm bill title covering reauthorization of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) and other changes to current law.
  • Title XIV: Miscellaneous 
Other types of programs and assistance not covered in other bill titles, including provisions to assist limited-resource and socially disadvantaged farmers. 
NCRLC policy position: Support socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers (including women, minorities and farmworkers) and the organizations that serve them; identify barriers to their participation in USDA program and remove them.
  • Title XV: Tax Provisions 
Specific new title of tax provisions for revenue-raising that CBO estimated would generate a $10 billion offset over 10 years to pay for the 2008 Farm Bill.


Action Timeline in Congress

Advocating Our Values

Beginning Farmers and Ranchers

Commodity Programs

Conservation Programs

Crop Insurance Subsidies

Food Assistance and Nutrition Programs

Local Farms, Food & Jobs: New Legislation

Market Concentration & Livestock Operations

Renewable Energy from Farms

Research, Education and Extension

Rural Development

Sustainable Agriculture: Nation's New Foundation