What’s holding back the new farm bill? 

U.S. Capitol Building dome in Washington DC.(Photo by Kristen Labadie, University Communication and Marketing.)

A look at what it will take to pass new farm policy this year 

As important as the farm bill is to both farmers and consumers, it will be several months before Congress takes action on new farm legislation. 

“The farm bill is not the highest priority for Congress,” says my colleague Brian Kuehl, a Pinion principal and government affairs leader. “The highest priority is keeping the government running.” 

Kuehl recently shared with me the challenges and opportunities he sees in Congress passing the new farm bill. He boiled the issues down to legislative process and policy substance. 

What should have been the 2023 farm bill initially set out as a 5-year update of 2018 farm policy. But, last November, leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees extended the existing farm bill until September 2024.  

These days, however, Congress isn’t focused on new agricultural legislation. High on the list for the House and the Senate is funding for Israel and Ukraine and approval of which is tied to immigration.  

Farm bill hurdles

Even so, Congress shouldn’t wait too long to address new farm policy. The existing farm bill’s extension doesn’t reach past 2024. If debate on the farm bill were delayed beyond September, the timing could be sticky, Kuehl says. That would push the legislation discussion through the 2024 presidential election and into the hands of a new Congress.  

Two other developments, however, make passage of the new farm bill more likely this year, Kuehl points out. Senate Ag Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan, has announced her retirement and will not run in 2024. Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, who chairs the House Committee on Agriculture, announced in December he has prostate cancer. While Thompson hasn’t announced whether he will run again in 2024, it’s always possible he’ll decide not to seek re-election. 

Stabenow and Thompson “will want to get the farm bill done as part of their legacy,” says Kuehl. “They won’t just want to punt it into 2025 and retire on a down note. So, my gut says we’re going to see the farm bill come together, probably in the February-March-April timeframe.” 

As the farm bill process unfolds, House and Senate ag committee versions will definitely differ. They’ll have to be debated on the floor. Whatever version comes before the House will have to face the scrutiny of the anti-spending House Freedom Caucus. 

“That’s the biggest hurdle,” says Kuehl. “Are there enough votes to get the bill through the House?” 

If a final version isn’t hammered out by the end of April, he says, it will be too far into the political season, and nothing will happen. 

Substance ‘flashpoints’

Meanwhile, there are always issues in the substance of every new farm bill. This one is no different. There are two big “flashpoints,” according to Kuehl.  

First is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the biggest part of the farm bill. SNAP provides food benefits to low-income families. With its strong support among urban Democrats, SNAP has been key to getting the farm bill passed in prior years. Some changes were made to the program last year, including new work requirements for eligibility. But once again, Kuehl says, the Freedom Caucus could hold up the farm bill with its calls for major budget cuts. 

Another flashpoint is the funding for the Inflation Reduction Act. Approved by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden in 2022, the IRA is considered the most significant climate legislation ever enacted. It allocated $770 billion for various industry sectors to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sequester carbon. Among important U.S. Department of Agriculture efforts that receive IRA funds are the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program; Conservation Stewardship Program; Environmental Quality Incentives Program; and Regional Conservation Partnership Program. 

A battle will likely be fought over some of IRA’s funding. According to Kuehl, Republicans will push for reprogramming some IRA monies for commodity title programs. If the Democrats do agree to any cuts, they’ll be small and won’t be a major source of funding for the commodity title. 

“At the end of the day, there will be some money taken out of IRA,” he says. “It won’t be a lot, but it will be enough for the Republicans to claim victory.” 

Message to lawmakers

Apart from those sticking points, Kuehl says it’s important for lawmakers to remember to “do no harm” when it comes to U.S. farm policy. 

“We have a good farm program,” he says. “It works for farmers. There are things we can improve. But there are a lot of things that could get screwed up if we start tinkering with them.” 

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There have been calls to raise payment limits and make it harder for large operations to participate in farm programs. Kuehl opposes that.  

“Farm programs are an important safety net, and we think everybody should be able to participate,” he says.  

One needed improvement is raising the payment limitation. Currently, farm operations that have more than $900,000 in adjusted gross income aren’t eligible to participate in farm programs. That’s lower than in years past. Since the lower amount was written into the 2018 farm bill, inflation has soared. The AGI must be increased, Kuehl says. 

How to take part in the farm bill

If you want to ensure that the farm bill works fairly for American farm families, Kuehl recommends reaching out to members of Congress. He also points to Pinion’s Farm Program Fairness Coalition. The coalition works to ensure that Congress and USDA write farm bill rules that match the reality of today’s farming challenges and that don’t hinder how farmers run their businesses. 

“People are welcome to join FPFC,” Kuehl says. “Members get regular updates. We do monthly calls. We provide talking points for communicating with members of Congress. Members can come to Washington, D.C., with us to lobby on these issues. And our efforts continue after a farm bill passes because there are always regulations coming out. There’s a need to watch these issues year in and year out.” 

Editor’s note: Maxson Irsik, a certified public accountant, advises owners of professionally managed agribusinesses and family-owned ranches on ways to achieve their goals. Whether an owner’s goal is to expand and grow the business, discover and leverage core competencies, or protect the current owners’ legacy through careful structuring and estate planning, Max applies his experience working on and running his own family’s farm to find innovative ways to make it a reality. Contact him at [email protected].