An Urban's Rural View

The Farm Program No One Should Oppose

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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The House-Senate farm bill conferees have their work cut out for them. Rarely have the two chambers' versions of the bill differed so widely. Rarely have the differences been so partisan.

The biggest difference is food stamps. The House Republican leadership saw this farm bill as an opportunity to advance "welfare reform." Accordingly, the House bill imposes new work requirements on some food-stamp recipients. In protest against those requirements, not a single Democrat voted for the bill. The Senate's bill omitted these controversial requirements and passed with bipartisan support, a record 86 votes in favor.

Reconciling those differences will be hard enough, but there are other big ones. The Senate wants to tighten eligibility requirements for receiving farm-program payments. The House doesn't.

The House bill makes big changes in conservation programs and cuts $5 billion from them over 10 years. The Senate's version makes less drastic changes and keeps spending unchanged.

There are also some relatively minor differences over commodity programs, with the Senate favoring ARC over PLC and the House the reverse (…).

Whatever you think of these differences, they're understandable. You can see why different folks prefer different strokes. The explanations lie in the party people affiliate with or the part of the country where they live or their attitude toward the environment.

There is one difference between the two bills I cannot understand. It concerns the Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research, which was created by Congress in the 2014 farm bill. FFAR is a nonprofit organization that funds cutting-edge agricultural research through private-public partnerships. Every dollar of taxpayer money--and Congress gave FFAR $200 million to spend over five years--must be matched by a dollar that doesn't come out of Uncle Sam's pocket.

This year the Senate's farm bill provides FFAR another $200 million. The House version doesn't. Try as I might--and I tried hard when I wrote about FFAR last November (…)--I don't understand how anyone would not want FFAR to continue its important work.

Could it be the cost? In a $430 billion farm bill, $200 million is chump change. By comparison, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the House's proposed food-stamp changes will cost an additional $463 million. Forsake those changes and the House would be able to pay for FFAR twice over.

Could it be that farmers don't value the kind of cutting-edge, basic research FFAR funds? Hardly. Last October some 107 ag groups urged House ag committee leaders to continue FFAR. "FFAR’s efforts complement and further the important work of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and contribute to the long-term competitiveness of our nation’s food and agriculture sector," the groups said (…).

Could it be that congressmen believe ag research should be done by companies, not the government? Actually, companies do a lot of it. As government support for ag research has declined over the years, private-sector research has increased.

But private research isn't a substitute for public. Companies fund research aimed at creating proprietary products. Public research is available to the broader public and its end product is usually not a product. It's knowledge. Knowledge lays the groundwork for products, but the objective of the research isn't narrowly commercial.

Why should Republican congressmen not want the government involved in this kind of research? It certainly seems to fall on the right side of the line outlined by the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, who said: “The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done, but can not do at all, or can not so well do, for themselves – in their separate, and individual capacities.”

Followed rigorously, Lincoln's maxim might take the government out of much of what it does today. But non-product research is something the people cannot do so well for themselves.

The brilliant thing about FFAR is it enlists private money in support of public ends. It funds research that's greatly needed but otherwise might not find financing. It maximizes the benefit to taxpayers while minimizing their cost.

The biggest obstacle facing the House-Senate conferees--the food-stamp work requirements--will be hard to overcome for ideological reasons. On this issue Democrats and Republicans just have diametrically differing views.

The FFAR issue should be far easier to resolve. There's no ideological reason why anyone should oppose this program that 107 ag groups say "delivers huge value for American taxpayers."

Urban Lehner can be reached at



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