Demystifying the US Farm Bill - Modern Farmer

Demystifying the US Farm Bill

It’s big, it’s complicated and a new version is being negotiated this year. Here’s what to know about how the farm bill works. 

The most recent farm bill, passed in 2018, is set to expire on September 30. 
Photography by Shutterstock.

How our food is grown, who has access to it and at what cost are among the leading issues negotiated in the writing of the farm bill, a comprehensive federal law that governs agricultural and food-related policy in the United States.

While the farm bill may seem too dense to digest, its contents underpin the functioning of the American food and agriculture system, which directly impacts how and what we eat. And now is the time to pay attention: The most recent bill, passed in 2018, is set to expire on September 30. 

Before that happens, there will be a host of hearings, negotiations and debate over the new farm bill. Here’s what to know about the ins and outs of the bill and what we know so far about how this year’s bill may come together.

History and evolution of the farm bill

The farm bill has been passed by Congress about once every five years since it was originally created in the 1930s as part of the New Deal legislation. The initial goals behind the bill were to maintain fair food prices for farmers and consumers, help maintain a sufficient food supply and protect natural resources across the US. 

The bill began as a farm commodity support program, serving producers of commodity crops such as corn, wheat, soybeans, rice, dairy, peanuts, cotton and sugar. It has since grown to fund agricultural subsidies, food assistance programs for low-income people, research grants, conservation projects and other agricultural policies.

The bill has lasting implications for consumers and farmers across the country. And as the public becomes more aware of the environmental issues and climate impacts surrounding industrial agriculture, the upcoming farm bill’s designation of public funding will play a critical role in shaping our environment for the next five years and beyond.

Budget and negotiations

The 2018 farm bill cost about $428 billion over the five years of the bill’s life, according to the estimates from the Congressional Budget Office. The 2023 farm bill is estimated to cost $709 billion over the next five years. Members of Congress who sit on the Senate and House Committees on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry are the primary writers of the bill. 

This year’s negotiations have kicked off with Congress soliciting stakeholder input and setting its priorities for the bill, after which the House and Senate Agriculture committees will each draft, amend and vote on their own versions on the bill. The bills are then synthesized and voted on in final form, although it has at times taken years for lawmakers to reach agreement on past farm bills.

When the bill is passed, it will be sent to the president to sign before the USDA puts it into action.

Where does most of the funding go?

The 2018 bill’s four major groups of entitlement programs (government programs that guarantee certain benefits to a particular group or segment of the population) were subsidies for commodity farmers, crop insurance, conservation programs and nutrition. Three-fourths of overall funding was allocated to nutrition programs such as SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which goes to supplement food budgets of low-income families to broaden access to healthy food.

The commodities funding offers income and price support to farmers and includes agricultural disaster assistance. Crop insurance provides subsidies to farmers and private crop insurance companies. Most crop subsidies go to the “big three”—corn, soybean and wheat farmers—which have historically received more than 70 percent of farm subsidies. A large portion of these crops are ending up as biofuel or animal feed, meaning that the farmers growing the food we eat aren’t getting access to nearly as many subsidies.

What do we already know about the 2023 bill?

As SNAP funding consumes the vast majority of the farm bill budget, this is where the most debate may take place, with Democrats likely to advocate for more aid and Republicans likely to push for a reduction in spending and increased restrictions on SNAP programs.

Other key points of negotiation on this year’s agenda will likely include crop insurance, rural development, research grants and conservation programs. Expanding crop insurance for smaller, organic and regenerative farms would be a pivotal change as these are often the farms most vulnerable to natural or economic disasters.

Rallies have already begun with activist groups such as National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and the HEAL Food Alliance advocating for the safety of food supply chain workers, equitable access to farmland and climate-resilient farming practices. As the temporary boost to SNAP benefits throughout the COVID-19 pandemic expired in February, the re-negotiations of these funds will be a prominent conversation as the bill is being written. 

Farmers march in Washington, D.C. as part of the Farmers for Climate Action Rally for Resilience on Tuesday, March 7. (Photo by Marin Scotten.)

The use of fertilizer may also be a chief issue as transitioning from farming methods that use less fertilizer is pertinent to both environmental concerns and the costliness of extensive fertilizer use, especially as fertilizer prices surged 80 percent last year.

Writing a bill that makes our food and agriculture systems more sustainable and accessible, while still appeasing the interests of big ag, a veritable influencer in the writing of this bill, is a fine line. The issue of fertilizer is unique in that reducing fertilizer use through more traditional and organic agricultural practices can benefit both sides of the table.

How might this impact the climate?

A major source of emissions in agriculture stems from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which make up 7% of total agricultural greenhouse gas emissions in the US. Many of these industrial livestock facilities are built on practices that use fertilizers, pesticides and large amounts of fossil fuels and produce massive quantities of greenhouse gasses from animal waste.

The Inflation Reduction Act, signed into law in August, removed the requirement for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, a USDA conservation program, to include CAFO funding in its overall agricultural investments. It also added a $20-billion investment in climate-friendly agriculture, which amounted to the greatest investment in agricultural conservation since the aftermath of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. 

The 2023 farm bill can build off this momentum by helping producers transition out of the CAFO method of farming and investing resources into smaller-scale farms that use regenerative, organic means of production. The available funding could make organic farming and ranching possible for businesses across the US that may never have otherwise had the financial capabilities to make the switch.

There is also a push from environmental organizations to increase funding for existing conservation programs by the USDA, such as the Conservation Reserve Program, Emergency Conservation Program, and Source Water Protection Program. 

Farm Bill negotiations have just begun to go public in House hearings in the past month and will continue throughout the upcoming months until at least September. 

Have something to say about the future of the farm bill? The US senate committee on Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry invites ideas and proposals for the 2023 bill; submissions may be sent to FarmBill2023@ag.senate.gov, or submitted via this form.

Is there a particular issue raised by the new farm bill negotiations that you want to know more about? Let us know in the comments, and we may use your question as the basis for further reporting.

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Rebecca
10 months ago

Farmers are selling what they produce (milk, meat, grain, etc.) for less than the cost of production but food is still so expensive relative to incomes that 75% of the farm bill budget goes to supplemental nutrition – providing food for people who cannot afford to buy it. This tells me that the real problem is big business. Big agribusiness companies that raise the price of packaged foods in the supermarkets while cutting what they pay the farmer, and companies of all types who pay their employees too little to actually live on. We won’t have a sustainable food system… Read more »

kenneth carrio
5 months ago

For clarity can the SNAP program be set aside and become it’s own bill – outside of the farm bill. Remove the stigma of being a entitlement program and become more of a farm program

Jim Woodall
10 months ago

A farmer once told me the reason that folks paint the American flag on their barns (as in the photo above this article) is to reassure passersby that they haven’t accidentally driven to Australia.

Bob Gordon
10 months ago

Thanks, Miranda & modernfarmer! i hope this article on the “Farm Bill” and the related articles listed beneath it will get folks thinking, conversing + acting for the future of America.
Widespread large-scale farming practices have been spiraling out of control. It’s time for a complete rethink.
gO FOR IT
CHEERS
Bob

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