Has the farm bill lost its oomph?

By Matt Reese

Though farm country frustration with the federal government is nothing new, the floundering farm bill seems to be rousing less agricultural interest than in the past. Even with an astonishing $1.5 trillion price tag, there are some in agricultural circles questioning the relevance of the 2024 farm bill being debated.

“We were in D.C. a couple of weeks ago with the National Association of Wheat Growers and we were having a meeting with one particular office within the Ohio delegation and as we started the conversation the staffer said, ‘Yes we’re looking at a baseline of $1.1 trillion for this bill.’ Then about 5 minutes later he said, ‘Yeah this is a $1.2 trillion bill’ and then as we kept going, every few minutes tacked on another .1 trillion. By the end of the meeting we were talking about a $1.7 trillion farm bill,” said Luke Crumley, with Ohio Corn & Wheat. “It’s such a moving target and there are so many political challenges right now and so many asks for new money, that it’s been really difficult for the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to nail down just how much this bill could be and part of that is they don’t have text to look at yet. They don’t have an actual farm bill pulled together for CBO to score fully.”

The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences recently held a Farm Bill Summit including an expert panel featuring Mary Kay Thatcher, senior manager of federal government and industry relations at Syngenta; Joe Shultz, executive director of The Platform for Agriculture and Climate Transformation; and Sara Wyant, founder and president of Agri-Pulse Communications.

The panel at the event was excellent and the discussion was wide ranging. Here are a few key points/themes.

Silence v. buzz

In terms of progress toward getting a new farm bill passed, silence is a good thing. When work is getting done there is little public banter. The discussions are focused internally. There has not been much farm bill silence as of late and plenty of rhetoric.

Reference prices

Among the more significant debates right now regarding the agricultural components of the farm bill are the reference prices. Some Congressional leaders and farm groups have been pushing to increase the reference prices used in the safety net program due to higher commodity production costs. Opponents, though, point to the already massive price tag of the bill and no budgetary wiggle room for the significantly higher costs of increasing reference prices. Even a 10% increase in reference prices costing many billions beyond the current budget would likely not keep up with the increase in production costs or trigger payments through the Price Loss Coverage (PLC) program in the farm bill. 

Nutrition spending

The vast majority of the farm bill funds do not go to farmers. Around 80% of the farm bill funding goes to consumer nutrition programs, primarily the often-contentious Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). As frustrating as it may be, all panelists agreed that a farm bill is politically unpassable without the nutrition component, though there certainly is room for improvement.

Timeline

There was wide divergence about the timeline of a passed farm bill among the panelists, especially considering the election year politics. Estimates ranged from “if it is not done by July, it is probably not going to get done in an election year” to “it will get passed in 2024 in the lame duck,” to “not until 2025.”

Relevance?

An underlying theme of the panel discussion was the actual, big picture relevance of the realities of agricultural risk management the farm bill really offers. With higher interest rates, inflation, sputtering market demand, no new trade agreements, an increasingly unfriendly regulatory environment, and countless other challenges facing agriculture, it could be that the risk management tools through the farm bill are losing their relevance. The panelists also agreed that there just seems to be less engagement from farmers this time around regarding the farm bill. At least so far.

Morrow County farmer Anthony Bush attended the event with the panel. Bush has been extremely active for many years at the state level and with the National Corn Growers Association and has served as a key voice in high level discussions of farm bills past. While Bush was impressed with the panel, he has not been impressed with the political progress (or the politicians) in the current discussions surrounding the farm bill.

“I just don’t believe that any farmer is going to bed tonight worried about whether they pass a farm bill. They mentioned that they’re not hearing from the farmers. Well, they’re hearing plenty from the farmers, but we’re just tired of talking to deaf ears,” Bush said. “The programs are losing their relevance. They’re talking about raising reference prices in this new farm bill debate. Even if they raised them 20%, it’s still irrelevant to the cost of production. If the politicians want to do something for us, do something to increase demand. Give us a trade deal — we haven’t had a trade deal in over a decade. Do something to make it so the chemical companies don’t have to spend $300 million and take 12 years to get a new product to market. The three panelists were really good and they all talked about a lot of stuff that is great, but when it comes down to the actual producer at the farm, these programs don’t actually always amount to much today.”

Even amid the justifiable frustration, all of the panelists and Crumley pointed out the importance of agriculture engaging with lawmakers on the farm bill.

“It’s frustrating, right. These are things that shouldn’t have to be drawn out like this. We all know that crop insurance works and that the safety net as a whole right now works and helps our growers in the times they need it. All of this is nibbling around the edges and bumping up against this big funding issue that we’re having in D.C. with record deficits,” Crumley said. “That’s why it’s going to be so important for growers to be connected to all of these organizations working on this advocacy day in and day out — because we never know when the door is going to crack open procedurally for us to be able to weigh in and get just the right piece of information to the right person as the process starts to pick up here throughout 2024. For growers, the biggest take away is, I know it’s frustrating, but right now is the time to start re-familiarizing yourself with the importance of these topics because as we go through the year, we’re going to need you more often to weigh in with your elected officials so they understand the priorities on your farms.”

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