Theory vs Practice

COVID 19 has changed a lot of things in all of our lives.  Some of those changes will be temporary while others are probably here to stay.  During and after a crisis a lot of ideas are proposed on how to deal with the challenges society faces.  For agriculture, a proposal is being made that in theory would probably be a good thing but in practice could be a disaster.

Some are proposing we write a new farm bill next year rather than wait until the current one expires in 2023.  I have often said that farm bills are more reactionary than visionary.  Despite our best efforts to look into the future none of us have a crystal ball.  Farm bills usually deal with current issues while attempting to provide assistance for future challenges.  However, as COVID 19 has reminded us things happen that we cannot foresee. Any long-range plan needs to be as flexible as possible to deal with unexpected challenges.  That’s why writing a new farm bill every 2-3 years is probably a good idea, IN THEORY.  The practice of writing a farm bill every five years has become increasingly difficult.  Gone are the days when the House and Senate ag committees go into a back room and work through their differences and come out with a bill that is quickly passed by Congress.  In recent years as farm programs have expanded so too has the number of voices in the negotiations.  Like most things today the farm bill has become highly politicized. Only 20% or less of farm bill funding actually goes to farmers and ranchers.  The majority of farm bill spending goes to programs like SNAP, WIC, and other feeding programs.  That has brought more people into the farm bill writing process and made it more difficult to reach a consensus.  When it comes time to write a new farm bill we often hear predictions that the bill will get done early but that rarely happens.  In fact, it is more likely to be late than early.

As farm bills have become more about social programs they have also become a way for groups to push for changes in food production practices.  Also as our country, and Congress, have become more urban than rural, it has made farm bill negotiations more and more contentious. Some have called for the “ag” portions of the farm bill to be separated from the rest of the bill.  However, most feel the “nonag” issues are needed to get enough votes to pass a farm bill.  Ironically that also makes it more difficult to pass a farm bill.  This ‘catch 22” makes trying to write a new farm bill, more often, a daunting task. Although probably needed, the political climate in our country today means opening up a current farm bill early has more downside risk than upside potential.