Future of Farming

Five fights brewing in the crucial $1.4 trillion farm bill

Read The Hill’s full Future of Farming series

Correction: Patty Lovera is policy director at the Campaign for Family Farms and the Environment. A previous version of this article misstated her organization.

The future of American food production is up for grabs this year.

With the nation’s farm bill expiring this September — along with a wide array of crucial programs that put food on American plates — lawmakers are on the clock to craft a farm bill that can pass the divided Congress. 

The House and Senate agriculture committees will hold a series of hearings akin to a large and acrimonious family Thanksgiving: heated debates with everyone united in the desire to fill their plates. 

Among the dinner guests: big agriculture lobbyists, farm-to-table advocates, child nutrition groups, conservation organizations, climate change activists, U.S. states seeking support for fighting wildfires, droughts and other disasters — and of course the lawmakers themselves. 

Here are the five biggest fault lines shaping up this year, from the upcoming battle over everything from $20 billion in climate funding to the question of what to do with the nation’s animal waste.

How much can we afford?

The biggest hurdle for this year’s farm bill is the same as every other bill moving through the divided Congress: It needs enough votes to pass. 

And that will likely require cobbling together votes on both sides of the aisle, which means going far enough on issues like climate change and food benefits to incentivize Democrats without scaring off too many Republicans with the price tag. 

“We keep hearing that this needs to be a value-neutral bill — no new moneys,” Vanessa García Polanco, a lobbyist for the Young Farmer’s Coalition, told The Hill.

At the same time, existing federal agriculture dollars aren’t going as far as they used to — eaten up by rising prices for fuel, equipment and fertilizer. To make matters worse, American agriculture has been pounded by years of extreme weather — from floods and tornadoes to wildfires and flash drought — and the aftermath of former President Trump’s trade war with China. 

Some Republicans propose to square that circle by cutting SNAP, the food assistance program that accounts for about 80 percent of farm bill spending. On Tuesday, Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) introduced legislation requiring SNAP recipients to work.

But President Biden and Senate Democrats are sure to balk at any significant cuts to SNAP, and the program isn’t the only big-ticket item jostling for funding. 

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) will join the major commodities lobbies, like the National Corn Growers Association, in pushing for a permanent disaster package: an attempt to end the system of agriculture having to continually seek “ad hoc” disaster declarations.

Wayne Stoskopf, of the National Corn Growers Association, said the commodity groups will argue that such a proactive package would be “more cost-effective and efficient” over time — but that money will still have to be found on the front end. 

That gives House Agriculture Committee Chairman Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.) two paths: try to pass a bill that can pick up 40 Democrats, effectively sidelining the far-right Freedom Caucus, or try to pass a more conservative bill that unites all Republicans, but likely hits a roadblock in the Senate. 

Ethan Lane, head lobbyist at the NCBA, thinks that practicality will win out. “The top line focus is a package that can pass,” he said. “Eyes on the prize.”

What does ‘conservation’ even mean?

Farmers — and farm-state legislators — love to talk about farmers as “the original conservationists.” But in the fight to define conservation in the farm bill, the knives are already coming out. And the alliances aren’t always predictable. 

“You can’t say that ‘Republicans will go against climate, while Democrats will demand more climate money,’” said Joe Maxwell, president of agriculture advocacy group Farm Action.

Both Republicans and Democrats are splintered into interest groups — with proponents on both sides of both independent producers and near-monopolies; of factory farming and regenerative agriculture. 

Expect Republicans to argue against anything that smacks of regulations. In a Senate hearing on conservation and the farm bill earlier this month, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) called for climate incentives to be “voluntary, incentive-based and flexible.” 

Similarly, Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member John Boozman (R-Ark.) raised concerns that climate funds wouldn’t be available to “producers unable to implement climate or carbon sequestration projects.”

Progressive groups fear that Democrats and most Republicans will push for climate funds to be redirected to “benefit the global industrial food system,” a colossal source of emissions, Maxwell said.

Conservation groups, by contrast, will push for tighter carbon and climate accounting attached to those dollars to ensure they’re going to the most cost-effective places.   

Should we raid the climate kitty?

Congressional Democrats passed $20 billion in funding for “climate-smart agriculture” last summer along party lines. The farm bill will offer a platform to debate how that money should be spent. 

According to the Inflation Reduction Act, more than 90 percent of that money is supposed to be split among several extremely popular Department of Agriculture programs, including training and grants for American farmers interested in increasing the ecological health of their lands.

The new funding aimed to clear up a bottleneck in these programs. 

Between 2010 and 2020, for example, less than a third of farmers who applied to the government’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) received grants. And that keeps farmers out of the (similarly oversubscribed) programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program, which is restricted to past EQIP recipients.

One major reason many farmers— particularly farmers of color — fail to get EQIP funds is that by law, half of those funds are restricted to livestock operations. 

In 2020, about 11 percent of all EQIP funds went to feedlots — much of it to build manure lagoons for hogs and cattle. 

The Inflation Reduction Act attacked this from two directions: pouring $8.5 billion into EQIP, $3 billion for the Conservation Stewardship Program and $5 billion into the Regional Conservation Program — and it also eliminated the livestock carve-out.

But Congress has the power to cut all the strings attached to that money, and some Republicans will likely use fiscal concerns to call for reapportioning that funding using the farm bill, said Lane of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

The House and Senate Agriculture Committees will debate how far they want to stretch the meaning of “climate-smart agriculture,” and where that money is best used. 

Foreshadowing this fight, Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) introduced legislation earlier this month that would boost EQIP funding for the most cost-effective practices (like no-till agriculture, crop rotations and letting forests grow along creeks) while slashing them for relatively inefficient practices, like digging waste-pits, clearing land and building roads.

Go big or go small?

The farm bill will also spur broader conversations about the future of American agriculture, and the balance between Big Agriculture and smaller-scale farms. 

Regional agriculture advocates like Farm Action’s Joe Maxwell believe that decades of farm bill programs have helped transform America’s farm sector from a network of family businesses to one dominated by a few large corporations, from seed and feed to the grocery store.

And while the farm bill may seem like a venue to adjust course, its focus has grown small, Maxwell argued. “The farm bill is a bunch of arguments siloed by title and subcommittee assignments,” he said. “No one looks at how our farm programs have gotten us.”

Some of the policy changes that could reverse this are very small. Right now, farmers trying to buy land using federally backed credit programs have to face weeks or months of waiting every time they apply for a loan — allowing buyers with cash to scoop them, Polanco of the Young Farmers Coalition told The Hill.

Others are more ambitious: like a lower cap to EQIP program grants to keep the biggest producers from eating up most of the money. “What if we lowered that cap, and you spread that money out amongst more farms,” asked Patty Lovera, policy director at the Campaign for Family Farms and the Environment.

Or Sen. Chuck Grassley’s (R-Iowa) push for more transparency in cattle markets, where most deals happen in secret.

There will also be a heated battle around mandatory certificate of origin labeling — introduced but failed last year — that would require producers to say whether their products were made in the U.S., from U.S. ingredients. 

On Wednesday, Reps. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.) kicked off that fight in the House with the USA Beef Act, which would require meat marketed as a “Product of the USA” to have been born, raised and slaughtered in the U.S. That would replace a prior system that allowed beef producers, for example, to claim that cattle raised and slaughtered in Brazil or Mexico were products of the U.S. — so long as they were repackaged here. 

Lovera argues such rigorous “Made in the USA” labeling — which could help small producers justify charging more money to cover their higher overhead — will help stand up the Biden administration’s planned new network of independent regional slaughterhouses.

But she echoed other local agriculture proponents in arguing that the only way to allow small-scale agriculture to have a shot is to trim the size of international heavyweights like Cargill, Tyson, Smithfield or JBS.

“We don’t want to invest in these little plants — and five years from now, they’re like, ‘it’s too hard’ and Tyson buys them,” she said.

What to do with farm waste?

Nowhere is the fight between big and small more contentious than over the question of what to do with the millions of gallons of animal feces and urine that pour off the nation’s factory farms — the management of which takes up more than 10 percent of EQIP funding.

“Having manure management and properly designed lagoons and things like that isn’t bad,” said Tom Zimnicki of the Great Lakes Alliance. “But if we have a limited pool of conservation dollars, it doesn’t make sense to be taking that much money off the top every year to pay for something that is effectively a business expense.”

The nation’s growing biogas industry will likely seek more money — and make a climate-based case for why it should get it. Biogas producers see those waste lagoons as a potential climate-saving resource — a source of methane that can be used to create electricity and heat homes rather than warming the planet. 

There are 2,300 operational systems in the United States capturing methane from human and animal waste — a number that could increase more than sevenfold with the right incentives, Patrick Serfass, executive director of the American Biogas Council, told The Hill.

The industry will argue that such “biodigesters” that break down farm waste into gas and fertilizer have profound climate benefits — and should be permitted nationally, rather than left to the discretion of state administrators.

Yet environmental groups question whether this “locks in” a system of high-emitting and unsustainable agriculture, and are wary of anything that will institute large-scale biogas before we have a better sense of how beneficial it is to the climate. 

They want federal conservation money put into waste management to be tied to measurable outcomes — like observable cleaning up of the fertilizer-contaminated rivers that feed algae-causing nitrates into the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico.

As it stands, “there isn’t any accountability for spending those dollars in a way that’s … most cost efficient to achieve water quality improvements that we’re all looking for,” Zimnicki said.

Tags 2023 Farm Bill Chuck Grassley Cory Booker Dusty Johnson Glenn Thompson Joe Biden John Boozman Joni Ernst Matt Rosendale Mike Lee Ro Khanna

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