Search Penny Hill Press

Monday, December 20, 2010

Farm Safety Net Programs: Issues for the Next Farm Bill

Dennis A. Shields
Specialist in Agricultural Policy

Jim Monke
Specialist in Agricultural Policy

Randy Schnepf
Specialist in Agricultural Policy

Roughly every five years, Congress debates and revises omnibus legislation governing federal farm policy. Commodity provisions in the 2008 farm bill (P.L. 110-246) expire in 2012, and Congress is currently reviewing U.S. farm policy. The collection of federal farm programs, which make payments to farmers and landlords, is often referred to by the broader farming community as the “farm safety net.” Some programs such as “counter-cyclical payments” (which rise when crop prices decline) contain elements of a safety net—which is usually intended to protect recipients against economic risks. Other farm program payments, such as direct (fixed) payments, are made irrespective of market prices.

As provided under the 2008 farm bill and other legislation, farm safety net programs can be divided into three main categories. Commodity programs provide income support and attempt to address farm price or revenue risks for selected field crops. Risk management (primarily crop insurance) provides protection from declines in yield or revenue for a much broader set of commodities, including many field and specialty crops and some livestock. Supplemental disaster assistance is available for most agricultural commodities (crops and livestock) when weatherrelated production losses are not covered by other programs.

Many policymakers and farmers consider federal support of farm businesses necessary for their financial survival, given the unpredictable nature of agricultural production and markets. In contrast, many environmental groups and budget hawks argue that farm subsidies encourage overproduction on environmentally fragile land and are a market-distorting use of tax dollars.

Historically, federal programs have primarily benefitted farmers (and landowners) of the major crops, such as wheat, corn, cotton, and sugar, with policy constructed over many decades by modifying or adding programs. As a result, programs sometimes overlap or work at cross purposes, generating criticism that they are not well integrated, cost too much, or do not provide adequate risk protection. Additional potential issues for Congress in the next farm bill debate include the extent of the current commodity coverage, program complexity and its impact on participation and effectiveness, and the effect of biofuel subsidies on agriculture.

The current federal budget situation is likely to prevent any increase in overall spending on a 2012 farm bill. Thus, the level of funding in the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) baseline budget for agricultural programs will be of paramount importance. Combined outlays for farm safety net programs have averaged $15.7 billion per year during FY2003 to FY2010, with a high of $20.5 billion in FY2006 and a low of $12.2 billion in FY2008. CBO’s projected annual average for FY2011-FY2020 is $14.8 billion. With crop prices relatively high, counter-cyclical support has declined in recent years while crop insurance outlays (which are directly related to crop prices) have increased sharply. The pool of money for any changes to the farm safety net will likely come from the existing baseline for the commodity programs and the crop insurance program.

A constraint affecting future U.S. policy choices is the broad set of rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO), which the United States, as a founding member, has agreed to abide by. Farm bill proposals, if implemented, will affect U.S. commitments, mainly through cost, program design, implementation, and market effects. Under the WTO Agreement on Agriculture, the United States is committed to spending no more than $19.1 billion per year on “amber box” support (programs considered to be the most trade distorting). The WTO compatibility of any new proposal, such as a whole-farm safety net program, would depend on how its provisions mesh with WTO criteria for loss triggers, payment levels, and production and trade effects

Date of Report: December 7, 2010
Number of Pages: 29
Order Number: R41317
Price: $29.95

Follow us on TWITTER at or #CRSreports

Document available via e-mail as a pdf file or in paper form.
To order, e-mail
Penny Hill Press  or call us at 301-253-0881. Provide a Visa, MasterCard, American Express, or Discover card number, expiration date, and name on the card. Indicate whether you want e-mail or postal delivery. Phone orders are preferred and receive priority processing.