“What’s more, if direct payments are terminated as provided under this plan, every farmer in the country will be left with no effective policy should the farm economy collapse.” To remedy this situation, Combest argues that Congressional leaders should request that the two ag committees produce a farm bill that would provide for a meaningful farm safety net while achieving the savings necessary to meet agriculture’s contribution to deficit reduction.

Combest is not arguing in favor of retaining the direct payments, but rather for reforms that would provide “a new safety net in the farm bill that does not attempt to duplicate crop insurance but does that which crop insurance was never designed to do: be there for farmers when prices collapse over multiple years…. The success of a safety net is not measured by how much it spends but whether it is there when farmers really need it.”

We could not have made that last point any better than Combest.

We have long been frustrated by the fact that developing sensible farm policy has been driven by a “how much it spends” mentality, using baseline numbers that always reflect an extension of current conditions. By not acknowledging the range of risks that farmers may face over the life of the farm bill under consideration, the farm bill likely will fail to protect farmers from widespread crop failure or multiple years of low prices—this is especially true of farm bills that are written in years like 2013 when grain prices are very high.

Whether farm commodity prices are high or low, farm bills have important responsibilities in areas like the nutrition program, the environment, rural development, food safety, and a host of other programs that meet a set of ongoing needs.

It is when farm commodity prices are low for multiple years in a row or when farmers experience the effects of a natural disaster that farmers really need a safety net as a part of a well thought-out farm bill.

As Combest suggests, a true measure of a farm bill is whether or not it provides the needed protection in a manner that manages government costs over the long-run. Looking to future farm bills, agreeing on that measure/objective would be a major step forward. The debate on how to best achieve it would still need to be addressed, which no doubt would be as contentious as ever.


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Daryll E. Ray holds the Blasingame Chair of Excellence in Agricultural Policy, Institute of Agriculture, University of Tennessee, and is the Director of UT’s Agricultural Policy Analysis Center (APAC). Harwood D. Schaffer is a Research Assistant Professor at APAC. (865) 974-7407; Fax: (865) 974-7298; dray@utk.edu and hdschaffer@utk.edu; http://www.agpolicy.org.


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