Will there be any changes?

Curious as to why his brother was unable to turn his degree in agricultural studies — dairy, in particular — into a good paying job, Dr. Vince Smith decided to explore the field of agricultural economics. One class didn’t offer any insights into his brother’s career path, but it did set the course for Dr. Smith’s future.

Forty years later — 30 of those spent at Montana State University — Dr. Smith is still studying the economics of agriculture policy. He recently shared highlights of his work at a public event in Bozeman. Despite recent headlines about China, NAFTA, and trade wars, Dr. Smith focused on something critical to folks right here in Montana: the farm bill.

Dr. Smith Lecturing at Montana State University

And some of the statistics Dr. Smith rattled off are startling. For starters, 85 percent of crop output in the United States is produced by just 10 to 15 percent of all the farms in the country. As a result, 70 to 80 percent of all subsidies are going to large-scale, commercial farms and not family farms as intended. While this lopsided distribution of subsidies has been at the center of debate in Congress for the past decade, there has been no substantial change in eligibility for subsidies since 2008.

There have been small attempts to direct more subsidies to family farms.

However, to date, none of those policies have had any teeth. For example, technically, farmers need to prove they don’t make more than $900K a year to be eligible for subsidies, but large commercial farms are able to skirt that regulation by dividing themselves into smaller S-corporations, according to Dr. Smith.

The U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate have each taken up a new version of the farm bill. The House passed its bill with a two-vote difference. A more bipartisan Senate bill passed 86-11.

The major difference? The House bill would make it easier for farms to qualify for subsidies, but the massive majority of subsidies would still go to the top 10 to 15 percent of farms. The bill also includes a controversial provision that would increase work requirements for food stamp recipients.

The two bills are now in committee as members of the House and Senate try to merge them into one piece of legislation. The conference committee is racing against the clock. With the current farm bill set to expire at the end of this month, Montana’s family farms are looking to Washington and hoping for some stability in a market that is experiencing more uncertainty than usual. With the ongoing trade war, low commodity prices, and now the future of programs meant to help family farms and ranches in doubt, our elected officials would do well to put aside petty differences and work toward passing a Farm Bill that helps Montana’s farmers and ranchers, while also funding Conservation Reserve Programs (CRP) and Environmental Quality Incentive Programs (EQIP).

-Andie Creel

Feature photo by August Schield

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