After failing to take significant action for more than a year, farm bill re-authorization negotiations in Congress have finally picked up speed in the last two weeks. Agriculture Committee leaders in the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic-led Senate have released competing farm bill frameworks. The contrast between each party’s package is significant, but both continue in a relatively status quo direction.

Budget numbers behind the proposals are still in development, making a full analysis challenging until the full legislative text is unveiled in each chamber, but it appears that the farm bill debate will fall along known dividing lines as the legislative process plays out this election year. Key factors include:

  • A bipartisan budget deal that sets a cap on farm and food spending by the federal government. That means the limited spending will be divided between existing programs.
  • Republican dysfunction continues to frustrate the legislative process in Congress. At the same time, Republicans are doubling down on their goals of gutting programs with broad public support, including federal nutrition assistance to poor and working class people, climate pollution mitigation and conservation programs.
  • Democratic party leadership is standing firm against proposed Republican cuts in spending from current federal levels enacted through the Inflation Reduction Act.
Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) speaks to media during the weekly Senate Democrat Leadership press conference, at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on January 17, 2024. (Graeme Sloan, Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

The stakes are enormous given the huge financial impacts of federal spending on farm, food, nutrition assistance, conservation, energy, and rural economic development and infrastructure policy. Millions of people will rely on the nearly $1.5 trillion authorized in the upcoming farm bill. The razor-thin margin of each party’s leadership in the House and Senate makes the farm bill a key political issue in the upcoming election. Republicans are desperate to deliver policies that benefit their base of agribusiness interests and mega-farm owners. At the same time, Democrats can’t budge on climate victories in the Inflation Reduction Act or on a major update to the Thrifty Food Plan, the formula by which Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits are calculated.  

House Agriculture Committee Chair Glenn “G.T” Thompson (R-Pa.-15), has agreed to deliver a full draft farm bill package as soon as Friday and has scheduled a committee markup on May 23, where lawmakers will debate and consider amendments to the proposed draft. Thompson released a title-by-title overview of his proposal on May 10. His package would cut SNAP funding by nearly $30 billion over the next decade, increase reference prices for major row crops by 10-20% and bring Inflation Reduction Act conservation funding into the bill while removing restrictions on that funding. Thompson, for his part, claims that the ranking Democrat on the House Ag Committee, David Scott (D-Ga.-13), won’t even talk to him. It is worth asking what those conversations might look like since the battle lines have been drawn for months.

The Senate has a different dynamic and faces its own challenges. Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) is retiring. She also has a long history of collaborating directly with Republicans to pass status quo farm bills. She was a key Democrat in passing the 2018 Farm Bill alongside Republican Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.). They worked closely together, keeping the farm and food budget aligned with business-as-usual for the most part. The current Republican leader, John Boozman (R-Ark.), and Stabenow have had a similar relationship. However, Boozman has been less committed during the farm bill negotiations, and has challenged Stabenow’s plans to fund her proposals. While Stabenow likes to call the outline of her farm bill “bipartisan,” it was not released in partnership with any Republicans. Stabenow’s proposals, unveiled in a section-by-section overview of the Rural Prosperity and Food Security Act on May 1, would leave nutrition funding untouched, protect conservation and climate funding and expand crop insurance programs.

The politics feel fairly intractable for the time being. There is only one way forward, and that is for legislators to actually do their jobs. Yes, it will take time and effort, but writing legislation and voting on bills and amendments is what members of Congress are supposed to do. However, most political leaders involved in the farm bill process are hoping for a “grand bargain” to help them avoid taking votes they might have to justify to voters on the campaign trail. In this case, the grand bargain would be a status quo “must-pass” legislative package that locks in another five years of corporate agribusiness-friendly farm and food policies.

One of the issues expected to attract the most controversy in the farm bill negotiations is the proposed checkoff reform legislation. Checkoffs are mandatory fees collected when farmers sell crops, livestock or other commodities. Theoretically, checkoff funds are supposed to support agricultural research and generic advertising programs such as “Pork, the other white meat” and “Beef. It’s what’s for dinner.”

But checkoffs are incredibly controversial among farmers and farm groups. Many family farm groups have long sought to terminate or reform checkoffs, pointing to program abuses and corruption. Millions of checkoff dollars support the agribusiness industry and trade association front groups with a corporate agenda, such as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) and National Pork Producers Council (NPPC). The NCBA and NPPC, for instance, have a long history of opposing anti-monopoly legislation, stronger pollution standards for factory farms and policies like mandatory country-of-origin labeling for meat.

A bipartisan group of legislators and family farm groups are urging for the passage of the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming Act (OFF Act) in the emerging farm bill. However, this reform wasn’t mentioned in either the House or Senate outlines. Despite that, the movement has serious grassroots support, including high-profile public meetings forthcoming in Minnesota, Kansas, Wisconsin, Alabama and North Dakota in May and June. These events, called the “Enough is Enough” Tour, are endorsed by a long list of groups, including the American Grassfed Association, Dakota Resource Council, Farm Action, Farm Action Fund, Kansas Black Farmers Association, Montana Cattlemen’s Association, Ohio Farmers Union, Organization for Competitive Markets, Pennsylvania Farmers Union, R-CALF USA, Western Organization of Resource Councils and Wisconsin Farmers Union.

House Ag Chair Thompson will do everything possible to keep the checkoffs in place. Among his biggest donors are checkoff-funded commodity groups. Thompson has even said he wants the farm bill to be “tripartisan,” citing the agribusiness industry as the third party in the mix. Thompson certainly understands that if given a vote, the OFF Act has a strong chance of being used as an election year cudgel in close house races. Beyond the big fight around commodity crop subsidies versus nutrition programs, a long list of controversial issues like checkoff reform linger just below the surface. With the traditional “grand bargain” farm bill coalition crumbling before our eyes, it is simply unclear who might have the power or political savvy to push it over the finish line before the farm bill expires on Sept. 30, 2024.

Bryce Oates

Bryce Oates writes The Cocklebur on Substack and is a Contributing Editor (Rural Community Organizing) at Barn Raiser. He writes about rural policy, people, places and politics. His work includes narrative nonfiction, opinion pieces and Q&A interviews. Bryce studies how the federal budget affects rural counties, farm and food policy, public lands and conservation issues, racial and gender equity in rural areas, climate change, economic inequality, rural demographic data and rural politics. A former farmer, rural economic developer and community organizer, he lives and works in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

Jake Davis

Jake Davis is an entrepreneur, farmer, consultant, and policy advisor. His passion for revitalizing rural communities and safeguarding family farms developed early growing up on a diversified farm in Southwest Missouri. He launched Local Root Strategies in 2020 to help revitalize rural communities and build a better food system.