Congress Negotiates Compromise on Farm Bill - How Will It Play Out in Wisconsin

Oct 30, 2013

Every five years or so, the U.S. farm bill sets policy from subsidies to food stamps. The latest is overdue. What could that mean for Wisconsin?

The last bill expired in September of 2012 – and has limped along since, by extensions. Lawmakers have been tending to other hot topics - such as health care.

But Wednesday several dozen U.S. representatives and senators will attempt to hash out a compromise.

Margaret Krome is watching closely from her base in Madison. She’s public policy director for the Michael Fields Agricultureal Institute. It’s devoted to farming research and education.

Krome desribes following the Farm Bill on its crawl through Congress as excruciating.

“The Senate bill was not a perfect bill; the House bill was less perfect.”

Krome says both versions slash nutrition spending over the next ten years – the Senate’s by four billion, the House by $40 billion. The pot includes money for food stamps and nutrition education. Krome calls those programs the safety net for millions of families.

In Wisconsin, the most recent stats indicate more than 800,000 people are plugged into the resource.

“Children, families, elderly, people who need those nutrition programs to make sure that they have enough to eat. So the cuts to the nutrition program are extreme in the House......and I think it’s going to be one of the big points of contention in the negotiations.”

The last farm bill – from 2008, allocated $100 billion a year in spending with up to 80 percent going toward food stamps and other nutrition programs. Many federal lawmakers say the country cannot sustain such a huge expenditure.

Krome says the fits and starts approach to crafting the farm bill has resulted in stalled funding to successful program – including some that nurture locally grown foods.

“It includes funding for organic agriculture, specialty crops, Wisconsin has a lot of specialty crops; for the Farmers Market Promotion Program which includes all sorts of direct marketing.”

Krome says the promotion program launched seven years ago. It provided nineteen Wisconsin markets with $900,000 to build a customer base.

“A lot of people care about local food – people concerned about obesity, about protecting farmland, helping farmers to be profitable; people wanting to make sure that people have more choices in their food and are encouraging the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables."

Besides funding to promote healthy foods, Krome says the farm bill helps promote farming in general.

“The average age of farmer now is 57 years old – which reflects a tremendous preponderance of farmers that are very much older than that. And not having enough not having enough new people coming into agriculture, is considered one of the riskiest aspects of our nation’s food security for the future.”

A farm straddles Ozaukee and Washington counties. Angela Rester is director of Wellspring. She says it helps trains young people to farm through internships.

Rester says the fact the farm bill has been running on empty, is debilitating.

“It is creating a lack of economic opportunities for this next generation of growers, farmers. It’s also impacting rural communities and impeding their opportunities to grow their local economies through local economies because some of these innovative programs aren’t being funded.”

Rester says some of the funds helps start-ups set up their farms.

Then there also remain unanswered questions about federal subsidies for dairy farmers – a Wisconsin staple.

If the Farm Bill remains in limbo, policy could default to 1949 agricultural law. That could force the dairy industry into an antiquated pricing system and could, for example, cause the price of milk to spike.

In the meantime, some members of Congress say it’s time to reduce subsidies for farmers of certain means.