For Congress to pass a farm bill containing meaningful reforms was always a long shot. But since the debate began in earnest earlier this year, a massive drought has gripped the Farm Belt and the nation suffered its hottest month in July since records have been kept.
Those factors don't make it any easier for Congress to reach a compromise on key issues, but they ought to inform the debate. Lawmakers have but a few days in September to get anything done before heading home to campaign in earnest.
July's heat barely bested the previous record, which was set in 1936. That was the era of the Dust Bowl — huge drought-induced clouds of dust that drifted across farmlands in the Midwest and were spurred by poor soil management. Some experts are talking about a similar thing happening today. Dust storms have been on the rise in recent years, and the Senate version of the farm bill might make the problem worse by removing direct payments to farmers and replacing them with increased supports for insurance premiums against crop failures.
While we oppose direct payments that pay farmers for not planting crops, the emphasis on helping farmers pay their insurance premiums also is fraught with risk. The less farmers have to worry about losses, the riskier they become in terms of working land they otherwise would leave fallow. As a Washington Post blog noted this week, "More than 23 million acres of American grass and wetlands were plowed under for cash crops like corn and soybean" between 2008 and 2011. This left less land for grazing. The Environmental Working Group has issued a report that says most of this took place in counties where crop insurance supports were the highest.
Farmers aren't acting irresponsibly on purpose. It's human nature to become more risky when there is less to lose. That appears to be especially true with large, corporate farms. Many small family farms can't afford insurance premiums even with government support. They will be hardest hit by this year's drought, which has reduced expected corn yields by at least 15 percent.
What is needed is a complete overhaul of farming supports that are little changed since the Depression. The government should end its subsidies to large, wealthy corporate farms, as well as its diversion of nearly 40 percent of the nation's corn crop from food purposes to ethanol fuel. It should establish incentives for wise land conservation and farming methods that protect against soil erosion.
Another wise proposal would turn a portion of the food stamp program over to the states in the form of block grants. No matter how counter-intuitive it may seem, experimentation and innovation at the state level could provide the best and most effective relief during difficult times.
Unfortunately, that's a big bite to chew for a Congress that seems anxious to avoid anything involving compromise and major change.