The writer, of Omaha, is a lawyer.
Old MacDonald may have a farm, but, E-I-E-I-Whoa, he is only one natural disaster away — flood, drought, tornado — from falling financially into the ditch.
Congress has power to make laws to avoid this calamity.
As the new farm bill is being debated, with a few notable exceptions, many of the sounds emanating from Congress resemble the Old MacDonald song, “oink-oink here, oink-oink there, everywhere an oink-oink.”
This is the third time in the past two years Congress has tried to enact a farm bill. The chances of success look grim again. “Big fights,” reports the National Journal, “are expected on the House floor, particularly over the future size of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as SNAP or food stamps.”
SNAP has nothing to do with farming. It has nothing to do with farm management. SNAP consumes, however, nearly 80 percent of the $940 billion so-called farm bill.
Food stamps are important, but attaching them to the farm program is like hitching the Space Shuttle to a tricycle.
Food stamps and farm subsidies were historically linked in an effort to keep Congress from ignoring rural interests. That may not be required today. The Boston Globe reported last week: “Many rural Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee are not willing to put farmers at risk and prolong uncertainty over crop subsidies [because], unlike SNAP, farm subsidies are not immune from sequestration.”
As noted on the website CropInsuranceInAmerica.org: “Farming is an inherently risky venture, and Mother Nature never seems to run out of tricks to play on America's farmers.”
Progress has been made to reform farm subsidies from a direct payment program to one largely supported by crop insurance, which is not free and not an entitlement. Farmers paid $4.1 billion in premiums and shouldered $12.7 billion in losses in 2012.
Crop insurance has bipartisan support. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., a Senate ag subcommittee chairwoman, recently stated that crop insurance guarantees “a steady supply of food in this country,” while Nebraska Republican Sen. Mike Johanns (a former secretary of agriculture) noted “basic crop insurance program is working.”
This does not mean there isn't room for improvement. An Iowa State agricultural economist believes premium subsidies for crop insurance can be further reduced in a way that does not dramatically impact farmers. Sen. Johanns has properly objected to remnants of target pricing and unnecessary “shallow loss” programs (revenue guarantees) that go beyond anything most farmers have requested or want.
These valid points unfortunately are likely to get lost in the turbulent fight over SNAP in the farm bill.
Farm groups have been understandably upset by the impasse in Congress, saying last year: “If the administration and Congress truly felt empathy for rural America, it would decouple the farm bill” and separately allow for “honest debates” on both programs.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously stated, “Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you're a thousand miles from the cornfield.”
Certain fixes need to be made, but a deal can get done on a farm management bill because it makes sense. Let's talk turkey about a few farm facts.
Americans spend only 10 percent of their income on food, less than any other country. For every dollar Americans spend on food, farmers receive less than 12 cents for raw products.
The United States exported $136 billion in farm goods in 2011, with a $37 billion trade surplus.
Traditional farm supports cost Americans two pennies per meal and accounts for less than one-quarter of 1 percent of the federal budget.
A stable farm program is economically beneficial, as food security is intimately involved with national security.
SNAP deserves a robust debate. Hunger is a vital concern, but SNAP has expanded exponentially. Some in Congress unfortunately have “vilified the crop insurance program” in advocating for SNAP while belittling farmers (“I bet they ate pretty well” in 2012) and claiming to do “everything” to stop the farm bill unless their demands are met.
SNAP should be given fair-minded consideration, but it should be separate. Farmers should not be penalized.
The great irony is that growth in food stamp spending is partially expected to be caused by higher food prices, notes the Congressional Budget Office, which could result from failure to pass a farm management bill.
Congress needs to act now on a farm management bill. Otherwise, Old MacDonald ultimately may be forced to sell his farm for a song. And that is no nursery rhyme.