Farm Bill Matters: Securing a Sustainable Future for All Farmers

Posted on April 18, 2024 by Alicia Alferman

Over the next few months, we will be highlighting the impact of important Farm Bill legislation and the very real impact it has on our community. We hope you will continue to join us in advocating for a better Farm Bill for all farmers.  

When many people think about agricultural policy, the first thing that comes to mind is a general idea that the large-scale production of commodity crops like corn, soybeans, and wheat is heavily subsidized by public dollars. In February, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) released a report titled Unsustainable: State of the Farm Safety Net to dig into these United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs that are often not understood by those outside of the commodity agricultural system. 

The report analyzes public funding for three farm safety net programs and finds that more than $142 billion was distributed to farmers from 2017-2022: $46 billion to crop insurance premium subsidies, $29 billion to commodity programs, and $67 billion to ad-hoc disaster assistance. As would be expected, the distribution of program benefits is concentrated heavily in the Midwest and Great Plains and correlates closely with the number of acres planted in commodity crops. Ten states receive more than 61 percent of the funding that flows through farm safety net programs, and both Kansas and Missouri rank among these top ten states.  

As Farm Bill negotiations have progressed, there is significant concern that the budget for farm safety net programming will be increased at the price of taking dollars away from conservation and nutrition title programming. These programs are essential to increasing food access for vulnerable populations and providing financial support to farmers who opt in to climate smart agricultural practices. Cultivate KC is advocating for a widening of the farm safety net to include small-scale and specialty crop growers, and not impact conservation and nutrition program budgets. Read on to learn more about this important Farm Bill topic. 

What are farm safety net programs? 

Subsidized farm safety net programs offer important tools to help keep farmers afloat amidst unforeseeable market shocks or when natural disaster strikes. Farming is a risky business, and nothing is more critical than ensuring the people who grow our food, fuel, and fiber are able to stay afloat. However, the current safety net programs support types of agriculture that are structurally unsustainable and concentrate resources in the hands of fewer and fewer industrial farms. None of these programs currently support diversified vegetable farms (aka, fruits and vegetables that the average consumer would recognize) or incentivize climate-smart practices. Nonetheless, it is important for advocates for sustainable agriculture and local food systems to understand the outsized role these programs play in agriculture policy and how they quite literally shape the landscape of our home states of Kansas and Missouri.  

Crop insurance premium subsidies 

The federal crop insurance is a public-private partnership that protects producers from weather events and sudden revenue shocks. It is authorized in Title XI of the farm bill and, behind SNAP, is the most expensive permanently authorized farm bill program. The USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA), regulates policies offered by Approved Insurance Providers (AIPs), and uses taxpayer dollars to subsidize the premiums that farmers pay, as well as the cost for AIPs to sell and service these crop insurance policies. Farmers have options to enroll in a variety of policies based on different crops, areas, or coverage levels, and availability of policies varies based on USDA data.  

RMA has designed a Whole-Farm Revenue Protection (WFRP) policy for diversified farmers to have access to crop insurance coverage, however, many barriers prevent widespread participation in this program. In 2023, only 1,967 farmers purchased the WFRP policy nationwide, which is down 31 percent from its peak enrollment in 2017. According to data from RMA, in 2023 only one farmer purchased the WFRP policy in Missouri and seven to ten farmers purchased in Kansas. In sharp contrast, standard Federal Crop Insurance Policies sold in 2023 ranged from 49,961 – 91,716 farmers in Missouri and 193,755 – 267,031 farmers in Kansas.  

Commodity programs 

Commodity support programs are authorized in Title I of the farm bill and are designed to ensure farmers receive a fair price for their crops, regardless of the current market. The programs include Price Loss Coverage (PLC), which makes payments relative to a fixed price floor (or reference price) which is set in the farm bill reauthorization process, and Agricultural Risk Coverage (ARC), which makes payments based on data from the previous five years. These programs are administered by the Farm Service Agency (FSA) and make payments to farmers according to their historical base acres of a covered commodity, irrespective of what is planted in the current year. Raising reference prices would require a significant budgetary commitment and would ensure that large-scale producers would receive greater financial payments from these programs. 

Ad-hoc disaster assistance  

For crops not eligible for the federal crop insurance program, the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (NAP) offers financial compensation in the face of natural disasters. This is a permanent program administered by FSA. In addition to permanent programs, Congress frequently authorizes ad-hoc disaster payments in response to hurricanes, wildfires, and droughts, which is appropriated outside of the farm bill’s baseline as a supplement to commodity and crop insurance payments.  

Why does this matter?  

Farm safety net policy is designed to ensure that commodity farmers succeed, while doing little to nothing to provide the same level of security for small and mid-sized farmers and those who produce the “specialty crops” that we eat every day. Spending for these three programs is at an all-time high and payments far exceed the intention of providing a “safety net” to keep farmers in business when the season does not go according to plan. There are also no barriers against “triple-dipping” and receiving payments from all three programs outlined above, which exacerbates the consolidation of resources into the hands of the country’s largest farm businesses.  

According to Billy Hacket, NSAC Policy Specialist and author of NSAC’s recent report, “The farm safety net is a cornerstone of agriculture policy and is a fault line in ongoing farm bill negotiations. Despite record investment and small yet notable improvements in recent years, most small to mid-sized diversified farmers are still unable to access relief when disasters strike.” While the system is unlikely to change in a meaningful way any time soon, it is critically important to advocate for common sense reforms that limit the concentration of subsidies going to the largest and wealthiest commodity producers and to responsibly expand the safety net to producers with the most financial need.  

What can be changed?  

We ask you to join Cultivate KC and NSAC members across the country calling for common-sense policy reforms to make federal farm safety net programs more functional and fair to farmers of all scales.  

Please call your members of congress and ask them to:  

  • Support conservation, not consolidation! Ask your representatives to reject a proposal that aims to raise the “reference price” for Price Loss Coverage at the expense of conservation programs and SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). The proposal would cost $20 to $50 billion and benefit as few as 6,000 or .3 percent of the wealthiest farms. Learn more and take action here 
  • Improve the Whole-Farm Revenue Program by expanding the Micro Farm option and incentivizing agents who sell WFRP. Learn more. 
  • Make common sense reforms to commodity programs by closing loopholes to existing payment limits and prevent absentee landowners not actively engaged in farming from receiving subsidies. Learn more. 

You can read all of NSAC’s policy recommendations on page three of Unsustainable: State of the Farm Safety Net