For rural America, the most consequential legislation Congress will pass in the coming year is the farm bill, which is set to expire on September 30, 2024. That is, unless Congress is unable to come to an agreement, and, as it did last year, grants another extension to the 2018 Farm Bill, also known as the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018. This inaugural column of “Inside the Farm Bill” helps launch Barn Raiser’s coverage of this vital legislation. Through this column, rural policy advisor Jake Davis and journalist Bryce Oates, authors of last October’s story “The Farm Bill Has Expired and Rural America Hangs in the Balance,” will offer regular dispatches about the farm bill debate. As the authors write, “We hope to explain why you should care about acronyms like SNAP, CRP, LAMP and REAP. We will do our best to demystify some of these farm bill programs and, probably more interestingly, the politics that might decide their fate in 2024.

Ranking member David Scott (D-Ga.), left and chairman Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.), conduct the House Agriculture Committee hearing “For the purpose of receiving testimony from The Honorable Thomas J. Vilsack, U.S. Department of Agriculture” in the Longworth House Office Building on Tuesday, March 28, 2023. (Bill Clark, CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

If 2023 is any indication, the 118th Congress will likely go down as one of the least productive, and worthless, in history. As Annie Karni reports in the New York Times, despite holding over 700 votes in 2023, the Republican-majority House passed only 27 laws. Even the infamous Republican-controlled “Do Nothing Congress” of 1947-48 passed 906 laws. 

Somehow in spite of their incompetence, Congress managed to stumble upon a one-year extension of the federal farm bill. That means that contentious issues like nutrition programs, climate programs, farm conservation programs and the enormous wealth and income disparities between farmers will be hot topics throughout the 2024 election cycle. 

It will be a wild ride to September 30, 2024, when Congress must act to re-authorize the more than $1 trillion food, agriculture and rural development bill. At its core, the farm bill is a spending bill. Congress is deadlocked into factions over the topline farm bill budget, as well as a tug-of-war over spending priorities and potential cuts.  

One club, dominated by Big Ag Republicans, thinks that we should be spending money to save the biggest farmers from financial losses while maximizing crop production. Another camp, including most in the Republican “mainstream,” believes we should cut the spending bill by reducing food benefits like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Cutting SNAP would leave millions of people with less money to spend on food, particularly in rural communities since rural people use SNAP at a higher rate than our urban neighbors. And in a surprise turn of events, new voices like Senators Cory Booker, Peter Welch and Representative Greg Casar are calling for prioritization of those farmers who have gone years with farm losses and often work off-farm jobs to make ends meet.

See who’s who in the House Committee on Agriculture and the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry

Back in November, House Agriculture Committee Chair Glenn “G.T.” Thompson (R-Penn.), the key Republican farm bill negotiator, convinced newly-elected House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) to extend the 2018 farm bill alongside a federal budget deal to give his committee time to expand crop subsidies and crop insurance. Like the vast majority of Congressional Republicans, Thompson’s argument is that the cost of increasing crop subsidies should be borne by cutting food benefits to poor and working class people.

Unsurprisingly, Chair Thompson is also in the pocket of industrial agriculture. According to Open Secrets, in the 2023-24 election cycle Thompson has raked in $504,405 in campaign cash from corporations regulated and financed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the executives employed by those corporations. His top donors include huge sums from the sugar industry, cotton processors, corporate livestock players, crop insurance companies and numerous junk food processors and retailers. Thompson, whose Pennsylvania district has only a handful of row crop producers, seems to know where his bread is buttered.

Congressional Research Service (CRS)

A wild card that the Republican majority did not expect through this process is the extreme influence of budget-cutting Freedom Caucus members. This far-right contingent has thus far stood strong for extreme cuts and heavy-handed policy riders, such as stalling the pending Packers and Stockyards Act rules in the annual Agriculture Appropriations bill. That’s a poison pill for most Democrats and some Republicans, especially those in states with a large number of independent family farm cattle producers. A large contingent of grassroots family farm, rural advocacy and corporate accountability groups have been organizing for decades to expand the P&S Act in order to level the playing field between farmers and multinational meatpacking corporations. 

This leaves Republicans searching for new money to shore up the profits of the wealthiest farmers in their districts while attempting to cut the bill’s overall budget. One place they are looking for cash is the nearly $20 Billion dollars allocated by congressional Democrats in the Inflation Reduction Act to help farmers be more resilient to and combat climate change. 

Everyone in the House knows these fights will get even more intense and unpredictable as time runs short and election season ramps up. Tensions flared in December when House Ag Committee ranking member David Scott (D-Ga.) chided Republicans for failing to pass a new farm bill. “With no commitment from the House Republican leadership to find additional funds for the House Agriculture Committee’s efforts to improve the farm bill’s safety net,” Scott said in a statement, “Chairman Thompson is forced to look at cutting other agriculture programs.” Politico reports, one GOP aide responded, “David Scott is bitching about funding and Republican suggestions, but never once have Democrats come to the table to offer solutions for their billion dollar proposals.” The $50 billion in potential farm bill clawbacks put forward by Republicans clearly indicates the budget cutters are chomping at the bit, eager to slash nutrition programs that help low-income people put food on the table and help to keep many rural grocers in business. 

The four spending bills set to expire on January 19 are not part of the farm bill, even though they include annual appropriations for the USDA and other programs administered by USDA, such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). Yet, the same budgetary brinkmanship over these bills likely portends what may come with the farm bill.

Complicating matters even further, Democrats in Congress have started scrutinizing titles in the farm bill beyond nutrition. Many progressives have learned the value of conservation programs to fight climate change, noticed the impact on local communities of corporate and foreign farmland investment and even persuaded the Government Accountability Office to weigh in on the overly complex crop insurance program that benefits primarily the largest row crop producers. Party leaders like Senate Ag Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) have signaled their refusal to compromise on these programs in the next farm bill.

In other words, it’s likely to get ugly as deals are made and organizations start firing up their bases about what’s in and what’s out. The days of bipartisan handshakes and low-drama farm bills appear to be behind us.

We’ll be here at Barn Raiser to help you follow it all.

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.

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.