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The 2008 Farm Bill has been a hot topic among our nonprofit partners and the news media for months now. But one common complaint among us average folk is that the bill is overly complicated and hard to understand. I’ve had my share of question marks hovering over my head as I read petitions or news stories about the Farm Bill, so I myself was anxious to do some demystifying.

So, with the risk of over-simplifying the issue, I did some research, and I thought I would try to explain at least the two issues that are important to our nonprofit partners, which are commodity payments (and their repercussions for our economy, global hunger and poverty) and conservation programs.

First, a general summary. The Farm Bill is a gigantic bill that affects agricultural business and trade, rural development, research, conservation, food assistance, nutritional programs and more. It’s basically one big bill that has lots of separate laws having to do with either policy issues or budget. Some of these laws need to be renewed (ie – go through a Congressional approval process) every year and others are larger-scale laws that do not need to be approved every year, though these can be changed with subsequent legislation.

Basically, this is one large beast to tackle. Our current Farm Bill passed in the Senate on Dec. 14, 2007. Now, the bill needs to travel through a conference committee that includes House and Senate members. They face many challenges in this process. There are many amendments to this bill that were debated heavily, but President Bush has threatened to veto the bill due to its lack of reform and its reliance on taxes to pay for conservation, nutrition programs, etc. According to many of our nonprofit partners, a veto would be a very bad thing, as that would mean that they bill would return to the debates, and conservation programs would likely be cut to balance the budget further. The best scenario at this point would be for the committee to agree on a reformed bill that includes strong conservation programs, and that would be signed by the President.

Even as we drill down to the details of commodity payments, the issue remains complicated. Commodity payments are cash payments that the government gives farmers for certain crops, namely corn, wheat, cotton, rice and soybeans. Though these payments were initially intended as a safety measure to protect farmers from falling prices, they currently allow large farms to sell these items at a price lower than what it costs to produce them. This causes smaller American farms and farmers in other countries (such as Senegal, Mali, Chad, etc.) to be completely unable to compete with the extremely low prices, driving them out of business and further into poverty.

This is just one of the areas of the farm bill that drastically needs to be reformed, and you can see already that it is an enormous task. Also, many organizations have made it clear that just getting rid of these payments is not going to solve the problem – it’s going to take a comprehensive model of supply management and price stabilization. To go into detail here would be excruciating, so I’ll leave it at that.

On the conservation side, it’s really a matter of funding. There are some great conservation programs available, but the truth is that two out of three farmers who apply for these voluntary programs get rejected because there is just not enough funding. There are 20 programs in the conservation section of the farm bill, which provide incentives for farmers to better manage their land, reduce chemical use and emissions and meet environmental laws on clean air, water and habitat for endangered species. These are all great things, and what environmental groups are pushing for is that all farmers at least have the opportunity to participate in these programs without being turned away.

So, while that’s a rapid-fire summary of some of our hopes for the farm bill, hopefully some of the links included will help you get a better grasp on the issue. Here are a few more very helpful resources:

Oxfam’s Farm Bill 101

2008 Senate Farm Bill (Environmental Defense)

In the meantime, you can take action and make sure the committee knows that you want conservation programs in the Farm Bill to remain intact: http://go.care2.com/14823610

The bill is back in debate, and a vote could happen any day…although, the timing in itself is up for debate.