Forum panelists forecast what to expect from the next farm bill

Agricultural producers, pundits and policymakers have many questions about when a new farm bill will be passed and what policies and politics it will incorporate.

“Will it happen in 2023, or will a friend of mine who has (bet) 50 bucks on 2025 end up doubling his money?” said Spencer Chase, managing editor for Agri-Pulse, during a recent Farm Foundation Forum focused on “What to Expect From the 2023 Farm Bill.”

Christopher Adamo, former staff director, Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry; Jonathan Coppess, Gardner Agriculture Policy Program director and associate professor of Law and Policy, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Chuck Conner, president and CEO, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives; and Rep. Glenn "GT" Thompson, R-PA, spoke at the forum in December 2022.

Safety net programs and workforce needs

Thompson was the ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee at the time of the forum. He is now chairman for the 118th Congress.

In recorded remarks, Thompson said, “As the 118th Congress nears, we have three options for the upcoming farm bill: let it expire, pass an extension or craft a bill that works for all farmers, ranchers, producers and foresters nationwide.” He noted this depends on bipartisanship in the House and Senate. “I’m dedicated to working with my colleagues, agriculture advocates and farm families to ensure that we get the job done.”

He said producers have shared their concerns about rising input costs, diesel shortages, inflation and fractured supply chains and that these and other rural issues must be included in farm bill discussions. Thompson discussed the need to enhance farm safety net programs and reduce the need for ad hoc disaster assistance.

He also addressed workforce shortages, saying that “no sector has been harmed more by our broken immigration system than agriculture.” He noted his tentative support for the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which he said he hopes will be refined to better meet farmers’ and ranchers’ needs.

What is the climate for the next farm bill?

“Farm bills are always such an important piece of legislation in terms of the future direction of farm and food policy in this country, and this one will be no different,” Conner said.

“As I begin a farm bill process and assessing where we need to be, for me the fundamental question is always what is the climate for the farm bill? Is this a farm bill where we really ought to be looking at revolutionary changes or perhaps evolutionary or maybe something in between—and a lot of factors go into that.” Conner said most farm bills don’t make revolutionary changes, with some exceptions such as the 1985 farm bill and the 1996 farm bill, which he said was the most revolutionary.

Most of the time, legislators just make tweaks and try to deliver the legislation on time, he explained.

Farm country is in the midst of drought and high input prices, so it remains to be seen what will happen with the next farm bill. A farm bill is not just about farm programs or nutrition programs—it really is much more extensive than that, Conner said, noting there are 12 farm bill titles, not just the commodities and nutrition titles.

As for whether there will be a consensus between a Republican House and Democratic Senate and White House, he said the people who have the best chance to make that happen and have the biggest impact are Rep. David Scott, Thompson, and Sens. John Bozeman and Debbie Stabenow. “These are four very, very experienced legislators.” This “seasoned squad” gives him hope for bipartisan work that will provide a good farm bill on time in spite of difficult odds.

Conner said the biggest roadblock will be farm bill spending on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. In the 1980s, it accounted for 14% to 16% of total farm bill spending. He said SNAP currently accounts for 76% of total spending and is expected to go up to 84%. The remaining 11 titles will need to divide a relatively small piece of the pie, he said.

“I can see this being a source of a lot of conflict—and this is not a newsflash for those of us who work on farm and food policy—but there’s going to be a real attempt to increase conservation, to increase some of the support levels for the commodity programs because those levels are so low compared to current market prices and the current cost of production. But where’s that money going to come from?”

He said he believes it will be a more austere farm bill because of COVID spending and deficits.

Conner said he believes four areas will shape the debate on the next farm bill:

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1. Conservation, including climate and regenerative agriculture;

2. Urban versus rural constituencies;

3. Cost; and

4. Nutrition.

“You can’t do a farm bill with just rural voters in the House of Representatives—and certainly that’s true of the Senate.” You have to have rural and urban interests come together, he said.

With regard to the conservation title, he thinks it will need to be the most climate-friendly farm bill in history—whether that’s through incentives such as cost sharing and technical assistance, denial of payments and subsidies unless producers are in compliance, or through Environmental Protection Agency or U.S. Department of Agriculture mandates.

He joins many in American agriculture in hoping it isn’t the third option. “I believe we have solved a lot of problems in American agriculture using incentives and cost share. I believe this can also be done in the climate space,” noting that the Food and Ag Climate Alliance, of which he is a member, will play a key role.

He concluded by saying the Inflation Reduction Act will need to be allocated and figured out as well in the farm bill discussion.

Climate change will affect policy

Adamo addressed some of the trends driving farm bill discussion over the past 30 years.

He said, “These trends are not static. Every farm bill has its own host of trends that uniquely act as drivers to push different policy conversations.” These include world markets, commodity prices and where they’re going, and how prices are affecting farmers at home. Other trends include:

• Consumer awareness and demand for transparency in food chain;

• Local and regionalized natural resource challenges;

• Organic industry growth;

• Local food system demand;

• Diversity, equity and inclusion;

• Climate change and agriculture’s role in it; and

• Connecting nutrition to farm policy.

He noted that the coalition of conservation and nutrition groups represented in the farm bill has continued to expand, including advocates in the areas of environment and climate, consumers, hunger and nutrition, urban ag, local food movement, energy intensive manufacturers, and underrepresented farmers and farmers of color.

Different constituencies have varying interests. Farm growing groups and hunger groups are core constituencies in farm bill discussions, but the list continues to grow. “With those trends and drivers expanding over the years and new policies that show up, we’re seeing new people at the table,” said Adamo.

Coppess said factors in society and politics often drive revolutionary farm bills, and he believes climate change will be a major factor in the next farm bill. Climate change’s impacts on agriculture are already being felt in many parts of the country. “Our policies—particularly crop insurance—are built around risk factors and the challenges at the farm level for producing food, fiber, fuel and other substances.” He said climate change would affect policy no matter what, and that puts pressure on policymakers to make adjustments and be prepared for that reality.

Committee members have to work within the confines of the Congressional Budget Office’s baseline and budgetary estimates. He said it is a zero-sum game: If you increase funding in one area, you have to make cuts elsewhere to offset the increase. The budgetary process pits special interest groups against each other and tends to leave out constituents.

“When we get stuck on the budget, we miss some of the key aspects of the people in the programs,” Coppess said.

Because we’re in a baseline scenario, we are unlikely to see any increase in funding. However, the outlays in the Inflation Reduction Act will be a factor in determining spending as well.

Adamo said, “The Inflation Reduction Act took a very massive swing at providing more budget for climate outcomes through the conservation program. That budget authority is there.” But how USDA ultimately implements it remains to be seen.

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program offers opportunities and a wide variety of options for crop management and infrastructure improvements in farm systems, he said, but there’s a shortage of budget available to meet the demand across the country. “There’s no quicker way to turn a farmer off of conservation than to get them in the EQIP line, only to wait many, many months for an answer and then have it be denied,” Adamo said.

He said farmers and ranchers are interested in doing the work, but the program needs the budget to support their efforts. The Inflation Reduction Act aims to help address that.

Adamo also noted that private sector partnerships and leveraging the scale of Title 1 programs might also help.

Coppess said there is potential funding available. “The challenge is how do we think through the policies, how do we think through designing or redesigning these to help farmers with climate change and all aspects of that—from the risks and the need for resiliency and adaptation to the potential market solutions.”

He said what has been missing from farm bill conversations about production costs and margin is that there is a real cost to the farmer. “As we know through EQIP and cost share programs, there is a real cost to the farmer adopting conservation programs and adapting their entire farm system around conservation concepts and climate change. There’s costs, there’s risks, there’s management challenges. Those can also be built into these programs—not to force every farmer into them but to provide options.”

Coppess added this might be an alternative pathway for innovative farmers who want to compete in the conservation and natural resource space.

Shauna Rumbaugh can be reached at 620-227-1805 or [email protected].