The Farm Bill: Not Only for Farmers

More than 50 years after the 1969 White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health, which led to some of the most impactful policies and programs to assist Americans suffering from malnutrition and hunger, and on the eve of the latest White House conference to address the very same challenges in the 21st Century, Cogent Strategies is taking a closer look at the reauthorization of the 2023 farm bill.

Many people think of the farm bill as a bill for, well, farmers. But the truth is, over the course of its nearly 100-year history, the farm bill has evolved and touches nearly every aspect of the American agricultural ecosystem.

The current farm bill, the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018, is set to expire next year. Discussions are already underway on how to shape the next bill, especially in the context of the Biden Administration’s priorities and uncertainties like extreme weather, climate change, geopolitics, inflation and supply chain issues that will continue to impact the agricultural industry. And while traditional political fault lines shall remain in the next Congress as lawmakers from red and blue, rural and urban states debate the farm bill, it provides an opportunity for members of Congress to find common ground on behalf of their diverse constituencies.

With that as the backdrop, here are three things to keep an eye on around this must-pass legislation:

1. Nutrition and Food Assistance Programs

Nutrition has been an essential component of the farm bill since the passage of the Agriculture and Consumer Protection Act of 1973, which was labeled the first true omnibus farm bill for considering the agricultural needs of consumers, instead of farmers. Hallmark food assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) have grown out of this bill, providing low-income households with financial aid to purchase healthy and nutritious foods.

The nutrition title, or section, of the current farm bill has grown to include seven major food assistance programs, but SNAP is the largest. When the bill passed in 2018, SNAP had 40.3 million participants and nearly $65 billion in expenditures. In fact, SNAP is expected to cost approximately $531 billion over the five-year period of the next farm bill.  

Nutrition is one of the administration’s most central agricultural priorities with the White House set to host a Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health for the first time in 50 years on September 28. With Democrats looking to enhance food assistance programs and Republicans looking to trim them down, the desire by some conservatives to pare back federal spending in general could run into headwinds as families continue to struggle to put food on the table due to inflation being the highest in four decades. Look for Republicans to continue to advocate for work requirements and eligibility rules in the SNAP program, as well as food assistance programs more broadly, to be some of the topics of debate.

2. Rural Development

Since 1973, rural development has been included in every farm bill, but has also evolved to address arising issues affecting rural communities—even those not directly related to agriculture. For example, the 2018 farm bill included funding for water, waste disposal and electricity  as well as funding for rural businesses and housing.

Broadband was also a focus. Previous farm bills relied on direct loans and loan guarantees to improve broadband infrastructure in rural communities, but the 2018 farm bill expanded the Rural Broadband Program and codified the Community Connect Program to make grants a more viable option. While the bill stipulated that 50% of a community’s residents must lack sufficient broadband access to receive a loan under the Rural Broadband Program, the bill specified that 90% of a community’s residents must lack sufficient broadband access to receive a grant.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) made sizeable investments in rural communities through grants and loans for initiatives such as expanding access to reliable broadband, clean drinking water, and rural development. This funding overlap will be a focus of the 2023 farm bill. In addition to details regarding numerous broadband programs, many experts believe that healthcare programs could be a top consideration in the rural development title. Rural communities have proven to be those most affected by the pandemic, so we anticipate the next farm bill could increase funding for improved healthcare access in rural communities including telehealth.

3. Conservation, Energy, and Sustainability

The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938 was the first farm bill to include conservation, as it rewarded farmers who conserved arable land. Subsequent farm bills have broadened conservation considerations, putting funding toward initiatives like combatting climate change, bolstering renewable energy, and protecting wetlands and forests. The current farm bill has three separate titles related to climate and sustainability: forestry, energy, and general conservation.

Congress has faced mounting pressure to use the 2023 farm bill as a vehicle for advancing conservation priorities. However, the recent passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) lessens that pressure considerably, as the IRA invests $369 billion in climate and energy initiatives—including $18 billion in existing farm bill conservation programs. With this level of funding at stake, expect lawmakers on both side of the aisle to debate fiercely over details and policies of conservation programs in the 2023 farm bill.

Historically, the farm bill has not been a partisan issue as Republicans and Democrats alike have worked together to address agricultural policy. The issues have been largely based on geography and industry–not politics. As the farm bill’s policy focus has expanded over the years, politics have seeped into some of the debate but has not unraveled the unifying theme of helping the heartland and American farmers. On the cusp of the next farm bill, all eyes will be on Congress’ ability to maintain that bipartisan teamwork and produce an amenable legislative package in an overheated political environment leading up to the 2024 presidential election.