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Trump Signs 2018 Farm Bill

Food stamps account for most of the cost.

President Trump signed into law the 2018 farm bill that modestly strengthens the farm safety net, loosens farm subsidy rules, and legalizes industrial hemp as a crop and then announced he was taking “immediate action on welfare reform” through stricter enforcement of time limits on food stamps to able-bodied people on Thursday.

“We’re here to celebrate a really tremendous victory for the American farmer,” said Trump during a 25-minute bill-signing ceremony. “It’s a great bill for them.”

While listing initiatives under the farm bill, such as maintaining a strong crop insurance system and more funding for rural broadband, Trump said “much more work remains to be done” on welfare reform and pointed to a regulation unveiled at dawn by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to restrict states from waiving the usual 90-day limit on food stamps to so-called able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs).

“It was a difficult thing to get done. The farmers wanted it done,” said Trump. “It’s called work rules, and Sonny (Perdue) is able under this bill to implement them through regulation.”

Congress rejected stricter and broader work requirements for “work capable” adults – the headline issue for the farm bill – in working on the five-year bill. Food stamps account for three-quarters of the cost of the $87 billion-a-year legislation. Antihunger groups accused the White House of cynically circumventing Congress.

“At the very same time that President Trump is enriching the largest and most successful farmers — and their distant relations — with unlimited farm subsidies, he is also launching a new front in his war on America’s hungry,” said Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group.

With farm income in a five-year slump and the agriculture sector dealing with the Sino-U.S. trade war, there are already calls for Congress to provide more aid. "As we head into 2019, Farmers Union will continue to push for a stronger farm safety net that reflects the realities of the current farm economy and its implications for the viability of family farm agriculture in the United States,” said president Roger Johnson of the National Farmers Union.

The president signed the bill an hour later than scheduled and devoted several minutes of his remarks on the issue of the day, funding for a wall on the border with Mexico. A couple of hundred lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and farm leaders attended the bill-signing in the Old Executive Office Building on the White House grounds.

By coincidence, Trump signed the bill on Perdue’s birthday. “You probably planned this out,” he said. Perdue agreed, “It is a great birthday present.”

The five-year farm bill, which covers USDA activities from farm subsidies and crop insurance to ag research, public nutrition, and forestry, takes effect nearly three months after its predecessor expired. Work on the 2018 bill was dominated by the House Republicans’ effort to write welfare reform into food stamps. The midterm elections, making Democrats the House majority in January, effectively terminated the idea and allowed a rousing bipartisan passage in House and Senate of a bill that began as a nakedly partisan proposal.

The incoming chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Collin Peterson, told home-state reporters that additional aid will be needed. Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley said bankers have advised him that farm bankruptcies will rise in the new year as farmers strain to meet expenses during sustained low commodity prices.

Under the farm bill, marketing loan rates will rise, there is an escalator provision to boost reference prices, and growers will have the opportunity to update program yields. Premiums for the insurance-like dairy program will be reduced, and coverage levels will be more attractive.

The long-term Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which takes fragile land out of production, would expand to 27 million acres, up 3 million. Rental rates will be reduced to offset the cost of the additional land. Enrollment in the green-payment Conservation Reserve will be limited. Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition said the budget baseline for working lands conservation will be $5.2 billion lower when Congress writes the 2023 farm bill because of the way the 2018 law is structured.

In the final round of House-Senate negotiations, lawmakers shelved a Senate proposal to limit crop subsidies to farmers, their spouses, and one “manager” per farm in favor of a House provision to make nieces, nephews, and first cousins of farmers eligible for up to $125,000 a year in subsidies.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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