Congress is gearing up for another farm bill. Here’s what’s on the menu

Updated February 2, 2023 at 9:53 am ET

Lawmakers drank thick milkshakes brought to them by the Pennsylvania Dairymen’s Association as they listened to farmers, ranchers and community leaders from across the state discuss their needs and desires for the 2023 Farm Bill.

The Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg served as the perfect prelude for House Agriculture Committee Chairman GT Thompson to start discussions on the measure, which funds many parts of America’s food supply chain and rural development.

“We’re working in times of crisis here,” Thompson said to open the Jan. 13 listening session. “This is an industry that matters, not just to those of us who live in rural America. This is probably the most important industry from the standpoint of touching the life of every American family more times a day than any other industry.”

The law, which appears every five years, is a hodgepodge of guidelines. The bill is made up of multiple titles — 12, to be exact — that combine to create what’s known as the largest safety net for American farmers.

However, a very tight deadline and power struggles between House Republicans are raising questions about the feasibility of passing a major measure in time.

Meanwhile, mayors, plant advocacy groups, labor advocates, utilities and more are vying for their piece of the farm bill pie ahead of the September 2018 expiration date of the 2018 bill.

One such group is the Center for Employment Opportunities. Based in Harrisburg, CEO is the largest nonprofit paying inmates for training in 12 states. The organization looks after around 8,000 people every year.

Kia Hansard, program director at CEO, came to the hearing session hoping lawmakers would take the opportunity to see the law go beyond animals and plants.

The biggest part of the bill is the nutrition title. It accounts for about 80% of the bill’s spending and helps manage nutritional assistance programs like food stamps. Although feeding programs are funded through regular household bills, the Farm Bill helps set the rules for how the programs work and who qualifies.

Hansard argued that the Farm Bill of 2023 should increase investment in so-called SNAP Employment and Training. The program allows SNAP recipients to receive employment training, offers promotions, child care and clothing allowances if participants find employment.

Hansard also urged lawmakers to exclude SNAP employment and training wages from SNAP eligibility.

Currently, Hansard said, “income” from the Learning and Apprenticeship Employment and Training program is counted as income to calculate SNAP eligibility.

“Essentially, significantly reduce their benefits or kick individuals out of SNAP because they receive revenue from the SNAP E&T program itself,” Hansard said in her testimony before lawmakers. “Participants are then faced with the choice of gaining the training and skills they need for long-term success, or maintaining the security of simply being able to support themselves in the short-term.”

But there’s more to the mix of funding than nutrition.

“It’s a nice name: Farm Bill. And there are clearly programs that benefit farmers, but you don’t have to be a farmer to care about Farm Bill,” said Dennis Nuxoll, vice president of government affairs at Western Growers, a farmer advocacy group. “You can live in a rural community and be a librarian. And in the farm bill there are programs that your small town taps into to build the library you work in and some of your town’s infrastructure. You’re a librarian, you don’t actually grow anything.”

Important negotiation points:

Though there are 12 titles on the Farm Bill, here are the portions most likely to draw attention beyond nutrition:

Crop Insurance: Elizabeth Hinkel, president of the Pennsylvania Corn Growers, testified during the farm show’s listening session about the need to make crop insurance more accessible. About 45% of the state’s corn fields are uninsured, leaving farmers to pay if their crops fail due to climate or other disasters.

Some of the crop insurance is funded by the farm bill, Hinkle told NPR. She hopes lawmakers can make participation in the programs more affordable for farmers.

Rural development: The Department of Agriculture is the only federal agency with a specific mandate to implement rural development assistance programs. These include grants for the construction of hospitals, schools, traditional infrastructure and utilities.

Research: The Farm Bill can allocate dollars to fund research at colleges, universities, and public and private institutions. This can include research into the best way to grow food, the resilience of plants to drought and heat, and the development of machines with artificial intelligence to manipulate the plants.

conservation: The conservation title received a significant boost from Congress’ recent efforts to invest in action to curb climate change. However, lawmakers have long pushed to ensure that programs are voluntary and not mandatory for producers. However, many say the programs are oversubscribed as there is more demand to participate than there are incentives to offer.

People view antique tractors at the annual Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Wednesday, January 11, 2023.

People view antique tractors at the annual Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Wednesday, January 11, 2023.

Senate leaders have their own set of priorities.

Legislators and stakeholders come with their own wish lists.

David Scott, Member of the House of Representatives, outlined his priorities in January, including expanding rural broadband, providing $100 million in funding for the 1890 Scholarship Program for African-American college and university students, and increasing aid to farmers, who wish to participate in USDA conservation programs.

Senate Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow led the negotiations on the 2014 and 2018 farm bills. Stabenow announced earlier this year that she would not seek re-election in the 2024 election cycle, making this farm bill her last. And she has the climate in mind.

“One of the biggest risks for (farmers) right now is the climate crisis,” Stabenow said. “It is the largest conservation investment in land and water conservation that we are making as a country. So it’s very important to our quality of life and hopefully we’ll be able to get the bipartisan support we need to make that happen.”

Both Stabenow and senior member John Boozman plan to examine how disaster relief programs are structured for producers hardest hit by natural disasters.

Boozman notes that Congress has been able to allocate the funds needed for disaster relief, but he says the problem with spending is that it’s sporadic.

“It’s something where Congress has to step in and fight for dollars for the affected region,” Boozman said. “The other problem we have is that once Congress has gone through all the mechanisms needed to get the money allocated, it takes a very long time. Then the program has to be set up. Once you’ve had a disaster in your area, it can take two years to get compensation.

He also said he is looking to further invest in programs that bring broadband to rural areas and review food spending.

money money money

The issue of financing the bill plays a major role. Agriculture, climate and development groups are demanding more money for their respective programs. When asked where he was going to get the money for it, Thompson said he had “no idea”.

But he credited the American Rescue Plan, the 2020 Era Pandemic Relief Act and the Democrats’ reconciliation package for providing pots of money that previous farm bills didn’t have as a resource.

Stabenow, who championed the parts of the reconciliation package that added a historic $20 billion to voluntary conservation programs, agrees it improves the cash base for lawmakers to work with.

Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., joins other House Republicans speaking at a press conference to discuss a Republican farm plan at the US Capitol June 15, 2022 in Washington, DC.  The group is calling on the Biden administration to relax regulations and policies to increase domestic food production.

Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images


Getty Images

Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., joins other House Republicans speaking at a press conference to discuss a Republican farm plan at the US Capitol June 15, 2022 in Washington, DC. The group is calling on the Biden administration to relax regulations and policies to increase domestic food production.

A deadline is looming for a divided Congress

The House of Representatives got off to a rocky start when 20 members of the Republican conference voted against electing Rep. Kevin McCarthy as Speaker. Among them was Illinois Rep. Mary Miller, a member of the Agriculture Committee, who was also present at the event in Pennsylvania.

However, Thompson isn’t worried. He argues that the political differences in farm bill talks are less about party lines and more about geographic and sectoral divisions.

But there are already signs of resistance. The conservative Republican Study Committee’s 2023 budget proposal, released late last year, proposes removing the nutrition title from the farm bill – a move already debunked by Thompson and other Republicans. But the group also has other proposals, including phasing out the sugar program and government dairy subsidy programs.

In 2018, the Freedom Caucus rejected the Farm Bill over immigration negotiations.

“It may happen that there are some partisan movements. But at the end of the day, when the final votes on the farm bill come, it’s a bipartisan farm bill,” Thompson said. “And my goal is to keep it that way from the start.”

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