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Farm bill veterans: You have questions, I have answers (sort of)

UNITED STATES - JULY 03: Ellyn Ferguson of CQ Roll Call is photographed in their Washington office, July 3, 2014. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)1 / 3
Chuck Abbott2 / 3
Chris Clayton3 / 3

PITTSBURGH — Understanding the U.S. farm bill isn't easy even for full-time agriculturalists. Journalists with limited exposure to ag may face an even greater challenge.

But three veteran agricultural journalists, with extensive experience in covering the farm bill, have some insights that can make the task a little less difficult.

Chris Clayton, Chuck Abbott and Ellyn Ferguson spoke Oct. 4 in Pittsburgh during a farm bill session at the annual convention of the Society of Environmental Journalists. The session was intended to help environmental journalists, some of whose coverage includes ag or ag-related issues, learn more about the farm bill. The legislation, the centerpiece of U.S. food and ag policy, is scheduled to be renewed in 2018.

Clayton is farm-policy editor for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. Abbott is a former Reuters reporter who now covers farm policy for the Food and Environment Reporting Network. Ferguson is agricultural reporter for CQ Roll Call.

Clayton gave an overview of the farm bill.

"It reauthorizes everything that goes on at the U.S. Department of Agriculture," he said. "USDA is everywhere," with its 29 different agencies and $150 billion in funding involved in everything from food safety, labeling and ag promotions overseas to various food programs and conservation. He noted that federal subsidized crop insurance "is the Holy Grail, the sacred cow" in U.S. ag circles. Of the $10 billion in premiums paid this year, taxpayers are footing about $6.3 billion.

As mainstream agriculturalists know, farm bills — typically passed every five years — often are delayed. That could happen again this time, Clayton said.

"I don't know if we'll actually see a farm bill passed in 2018," he said.

Abbott cited the "rule of three" in photographic composition in his presentation on the farm bill:

• Support from three groups is needed to get the farm bill approved: the "nutrition/hunger community," conservation/environmental groups and farm groups.

• Approval from three places is needed: the U.S. House, Senate and White House. And there's no guarantee that if even if one political party controls both chambers, the president will go along.

• There are three general types of farm programs: crop subsidies, crop insurance and conservation. "Each area of operation is a different way of supplying money to agriculture," Abbott said.

He also told the environmental journalists that the farm bill is "produced mostly in darkness ... mostly behind closed doors."

Ferguson described her job as "standing in hallways" talking with, or waiting to talk with, members of Congress and others working on legislation, including the farm bill.

"What do I know at this point" about when the next farm bill will be approved?, she asked. "Not much."

"Regional rivalries, regional differences" will influence the next farm bill, she said. "Everybody's trying to get their share of the farm bill."

Crucial to the farm bill date is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which involves about 70 percent of all money in the bill, she said.

If the farm bill is split into two parts — one for farm programs, the other for SNAP — the farm bill probably will fail, Ferguson said.

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