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About every five years, members of the U.S. Congress negotiate to renew a sweeping bundle of legislation: the Farm Bill.
The Farm Bill was first passed in 1933 to raise crop prices and reduce agricultural surpluses after World War I, the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. While the bill still serves to support farmers, it has also evolved to fund food assistance programs and conservation efforts.
The Farm Bill has 12 sections, or titles, that cover different areas of policy. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is charged with implementing these policies.
The next Farm Bill is scheduled to come in 2023. To learn more about what could be expected, The Gazette spoke with Kayla Bergman, the policy manager for the Center for Rural Affairs who is based near Ames. Her answers are edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: For people who may have never heard of it, what is the Farm Bill?
A: The Farm Bill is a package of legislation that comes around every five years. It has many titles and runs a gamut of various programs, spanning from commodities to conservation to crop insurance to rural development.
Within the conservation title, for example, working lands conservation programs help farmers implement conservation while still maintaining agricultural production. There’s also the federal crop insurance program, which subsidizes crop insurance as a safety net for agricultural producers in times of extreme weather and market fluctuations.
Funding-wise, the most significant piece of the Farm Bill is the nutrition title, which includes the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — what some might call food stamps, or nutrition assistance for individuals below a certain income threshold.
The budget was $428 billion in the 2018 Farm Bill. We're looking at about the same for the 2022-23 Farm Bill. About 76 percent of the pie goes to SNAP.
Q: Who votes on the Farm Bill? Have negotiations already started?
A: The House and Senate Agriculture Committees write the Farm Bill. Appointed committee members work over a 12- to 18-month period, gathering feedback from constituents and negotiating various programs, funds and improvements. When the Farm Bill is developed, it will go to all Congress members in each chamber for a vote.
Congress is currently hearing from individuals and organizations about how their USDA programs are working. Each member of Congress has priorities that affect their constituents the most, and they're already having conversations with colleagues working together.
I'm hearing a lot about how this Farm Bill will be bipartisan, which means that both Republicans and Democrats will be working together to ultimately inform the Farm Bill. I'm hearing good things there. If you are using USDA programs, now is the time to be talking to your members of Congress about how important these programs are to you.
The current Farm Bill expires on Sept. 30, 2023. In an ideal world, new legislation will be ready to vote on for a seamless transition. That almost never happens. It could happen earlier or later, which could expand the current Farm Bill’s timeline until the new one is written.
Q: What's at stake for this upcoming Farm Bill? Are there any issues that you think will cause more conversation?
A: I think one of the important conversations this next Farm Bill will bring up is the opportunity to improve the working lands conservation programs to better address climate and producer needs. We can do this by emphasizing soil testing in the Conservation Stewardship Program, which provides five-year contracts for producers maintaining conservation in their operations. Producers have really seen the benefit of having soil testing data on their farms when making management decisions.
In addition, one of the forefront conversations is the small meat processing industry that helped keep food supplies intact after large meat processors slowed or halted production during the COVID-19 pandemic. Those processors have had limited access to capital to improve and expand their facilities and operations.
We've seen investment from the administration to create a program called the Meat and Poultry Intermediary Lending Program. It lends to organizations like the Center for Rural Affairs that will finance really small meat processors and give them technical assistance. That will be a conversation we'll see ramped up in the Farm Bill as well.
Q: How do you think this year's elections will impact how the upcoming Farm Bill negotiations will go?
A: We have a Republican-led House starting in January, with our Senate maintaining Democratic control with Democratic president. So, we've got a good balance.
We also have to understand that a lot of the leaders on the ag committees have long-standing work relationships with one another. There will be some new members in each of the Senate and House committees, but the leadership at play have been working really closely already.
There's going to be some negotiations, of course, but I'm feeling positive about the conversations that are already happening and the willingness to work together across the aisle in both of those committees.
Q: Why is the Farm Bill important, and who does it impact?
A: There is something in the Farm Bill that affects all rural individuals, whether you are directly in a program or a customer of somebody that is using a USDA program or service.
If you're a farmer using the Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service or purchasing crop insurance, you are affected. If you are an individual in the nutrition program, you are affected.
At the Center for Rural Affairs, we know that rural America is a significant part of the Farm Bill. We want to make sure that rural voices are heard by Congress and are top of mind when writing this next Farm Bill.
Brittney J. Miller is the Energy & Environment Reporter for The Gazette and a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.
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