Food and farm bill benefits everyone

It's important to understand what a farm bill actually encompasses. Nearly 80 percent of the money spent in the 2008 farm bill was directed to nutrition programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. In other words, only 20 percent of the bill goes to various programs typically associated with the farm bill.

The farm bill started as an income protection measure during the Great Depression. Over the years the farm safety net hasn't always been directed at those who need it the most. The original intention of the farm bill was to help small- and mid-sized farmers get through the difficult times. Instead, nearly 70 percent of the farm payments are received by 10 percent of the recipients, helping inflate land prices, enticing big producers to get bigger, and discouraging beginning farmers.

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That's why I'm proposing genuine reforms to the farm payment system that will end unlimited farm payments and tighten restrictions on eligibility. I'll be fighting to tighten the requirement that recipients must be actively engaged in farming to qualify for farm payments and put a hard cap of $125,000 for an individual on farm payments (my bill caps direct payments at $20,000; counter-cyclical payments at $30,000; and marketing loan gains at $75,000 for individual farmers). This would save more than $1.5 billion over ten years.

While I'm a proponent of pretty dramatically altering the safety net for farmers, it's vitally important that the farm safety net is kept. Not enough people appreciate that our ability to grow our own food is a national security interest. That safety net enables our farm families to feed America by providing a safe, stable and affordable food supply. It's important for social cohesion, because without this safe and stable food supply, as the old saying goes, we're only 9 meals away from a revolution.

Probably the most effective risk management tool for farmers as they work to keep a steady food supply is the crop insurance program. The crop insurance program contributed $6 billion to deficit reduction through cuts made last year. It will be important for congress to maintain crop insurance as much as possible. One only needs to see the family farmers who have crops flooded by the Missouri or Mississippi rivers this year. Many of those farmers would have great difficulty continuing operating if they had no crop insurance.

And, as consolidation in agribusiness continues, independent producers have fewer buyers and suppliers from which to choose. Family farmers and small producers deserve a fighting chance in the marketplace (the family farmer today also stands to receive the smallest share of the consumer dollar in history). We need to ensure a level playing field for all market participants and make sure the family farmer isn't left behind by addressing the unfair practices, monopsony and vertical integration in agriculture.

The food and farm bill serves as the backbone of our nutrition programs and as a safety net for rural America, whose economic health and vitality resonates throughout the entire economy. The House and Senate Agriculture Committees will be working over the next year to write legislation that provides the nutrition assistance that's needed for Americans across the country and preserves the safety net that enables farmers to provide a safe, stable and affordable food supply for America and even the world, while mindful of the tight budget our country faces.