4 Reasons You Should Be Paying Attention to the Farm Bill

AP Photo/Allison Dinner

By Keya Vakil

April 17, 2023

The Farm Bill provides food assistance for 41 million Americans, funds land conservation practices, is a huge source of federal investment in rural communities, and ensures all Americans they have access to a safe, stable supply of food.

Every five years, Congress gets together to pass a massive piece of legislation known as the Farm Bill. 

While the 1,000 page bill, $700 billion bill does have a lot to do with farming and agriculture, it has 12 sections in total covering a range of policies, from food assistance to land conservation and crop insurance.

The bill—which is primarily implemented by the United States Department of Agriculture—is one of the main sources of federal investment in rural communities, but the bill also affects millions of people in urban and suburban areas as well, ensuring they have access to a safe, stable supply of food.

The last Farm Bill was passed in 2018 and is set to expire at the end of September, which means lawmakers are working on the new bill right now. Here are the 4 major pieces:

1. Food Assistance for Tens of Millions of Americans

The first Farm Bill was passed in 1933 to help farmers recover from the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, but nowadays, 75% of the legislation’s funding goes towards providing life-saving food assistance benefits to more than 41 million Americans through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

The program helps low-income Americans in rural, urban, and suburban communities afford groceries and food. SNAP has been shown to reduce food insecurity by 30% and is one of the most effective anti-poverty programs ever implemented. The benefits ripple out, too, as research shows that SNAP benefits help contribute to the local economy and keep businesses open and workers employed.

Three other food programs funded by the bill—the Emergency Food Assistance Program, the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, and the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program—also help Americans at risk of hunger:

  • The Emergency Food Assistance Program provides nutritious foods, such as fresh produce and grains, to food banks and soup kitchens. 
  • The Commodity Supplemental Food Program gives food boxes of nutritious, shelf-stable food to income-eligible seniors. 
  • The Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program provides seniors vouchers to use at participating farmers’ markets so they can obtain locally grown fruits and vegetables.

2. Commodity Programs

The farm bill also provides financial support to commodity farmers, who grow some of the most critical items—corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, cotton, sugar, dairy—ensuring they can remain financially viable while also securing the nation’s food supply.

Here’s how it works: When the price of one of the eligible commodity crops drops below a certain number, farmers receive a payment based on a formula, so they don’t have a financial incentive to abandon certain crops if prices decrease.

Slightly over 7% of the bill’s funds go towards commodity programs, which benefit about 850,000 farmers each year, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars each year. But some large farms consistently receive hundreds of thousands of dollars—and in some cases, nearly $1 million annually—in help, which has drawn some criticism.

3. Federal crop insurance program

This program helps cover the cost of crop insurance for farmers in order to help their businesses survive negative market changes and extreme weather conditions like droughts or floods that could otherwise destroy their livelihoods. About 9% of the bill’s funding goes towards crop insurance.

4. Farmland conservation

The bill includes several land conservation programs—including the Conservation Reserve Program, Conservation Stewardship Program, and Environmental Quality Incentives Program—that help farmers protect land, improve their air quality, and prevent pollution of waterways, while still maintaining their crop production. As the impacts of climate change grow more severe, land conservation programs are becoming even more critical.

Conservation programs also allow for local communities to support recreation and sporting activities and boost their economies by attracting those drawn to outdoors recreation. About 7% of the bill’s funds go towards conservation.

5. Other

These four categories make up about 99% of the funds allocated by the Farm Bill, but the bill also funds a lot of other important items, including bioenergy programs and broadband grants and business loans for rural communities.

The 2023 Farm Bill

As lawmakers negotiate over the bill, dozens of different advocacy groups are making their voices heard to fight for a farm bill that expands access to affordable, nutritious food, shifts power from corporate agricultural monopolies to local communities and regional food systems, improves conditions for food producers and other workers, provides climate solutions, and protects investments in rural clean-energy infrastructure.

Top Republicans have already signaled they want to cut funding for SNAP, either by pushing for stricter eligibility requirements or imposing more restrictive work requirements on beneficiaries. Hunger, nutrition, and health advocacy groups are fighting back against such efforts and instead want to protect and expand SNAP benefit levels, make sure all communities have equal access to healthy food, and invest in research to improve nutrition security.

On the crop insurance front, as the number of extreme weather events due to climate change increases, agricultural groups such as the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) have called for reforms. They want to make crop insurance easier for a more diverse array of farms to obtain.

Currently, most acres where corn, soybean, wheat, and cotton are grown are covered by crop insurance policies, but few fruit and vegetable farms get coverage. NSAC also wants to reward producers who use climate-friendly and environment-friendly practices, among other reforms, which would incentivize other farmers to adopt such practices to face climate change head-on.

Needless to say, there’s a lot at stake in this year’s farm bill.

Author

  • Keya Vakil

    Keya Vakil is the deputy political editor at COURIER. He previously worked as a researcher in the film industry and dabbled in the political world.

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