The farm bill debate has finally taken flight, with House Agriculture Committee Republicans breaking the Congressional logjam. The committee officially “marked up” and passed Chair Glenn “GT” Thompson’s (R-Pa.) draft “Farm, Food, and National Security Act of 2024” (H.R. 8467) on May 23. Thompson’s draft was passed with few changes, as Republicans were able to hold their caucus together and fend off numerous amendments offered by Democrats.

Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Ranking Member John Boozman (R-Ark.) converse during a hearing on oversight of the Dept. of Agriculture in March 2023. (Francis Chung, Politico via AP Images)

Much of the contentious committee debate focused on the biggest ticket items, primarily Republican priorities to increase government payments/support for large row crop farmers by $50 billion along with nearly $30 billion in cuts to SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). Democrats criticized these provisions by pointing out that proposed GOP farm bill budget changes are based on flawed math (the Congressional Budget Office agrees with Democrats), and that cutting SNAP will take food off the table for poor and working class people. Despite these arguments, all amendments offered by Democrats were voted down on party line votes 29-25.

In addition to farm subsidy and nutrition program budgets, one of the more compelling debates focused on child labor in meatpacking plants. Representative Greg Casar (D-Texas-35) offered an amendment that would ban the U.S. Department of Agriculture from purchasing food from meatpacking facilities where illegal child labor takes place.

While Republican committee members questioned the assumption that illegal child labor is a common practice, Casar and fellow Democrats shared data and reporting that underline the need for action on child labor in the farm and food industry.

Last year, a Food & Environment Reporting Network analysis, for instance, combed through U.S. Department of Labor investigations finding a sharp increase in child labor violations. The agency has seen a 69% increase in illegally employed children since 2018. The agency found more than 12,000 child labor violations in the nation’s food system between January 1, 2018 and November 23, 2022, compared with 16,000 total violations across all industries for the same period.

A child worker with Packers Sanitation Services, LLC (PSSI) working the graveyard shift in the ground beef room of the JBS plant in Grand Island, Nebraska. PSSI has illegally employing more than 100 children ages 13-17 at multiple plants across eight states. (WHI Lopez)

The Biden administration has made cracking down on illegal child labor a priority. Following a 2023 New York Times investigation that detailed blatant child labor law violations, particularly egregious among immigrant teenage populations, the White House announced multiple agency actions to end the practice. The Labor Department is investigating two of the largest poultry corporations, Perdue Farms and Tyson Foods, following reports that kids as young as 13-years-old have worked overnight shifts cleaning both companies’ plants.

Despite the evidence presented by Democrats, Republicans voted down Casar’s amendment, voting instead for an amendment by Derrick Van Orden (R-Wisc.) to initiate a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) study on child labor. Democrats pointed out that such a study was already conducted and published by the GAO in 2018.

“Today, so many children are forced to work unsafe, dangerous, and overnight jobs by some of the biggest corporations in our country,” said Casar in a statement following the committee markup. “House Republicans voted to continue to give billion dollar contracts to meat packing corporations, while turning a blind eye to child labor in their plants. House Republicans won’t support common sense legislation to keep kids out of meat packing plants because they’ve chosen to support CEOs and their lobbyists over our kids.”

Momentum for an even stronger child labor farm bill provision is growing in the Senate, according to a recent Politico report. Senate Agriculture Committee member Cory Booker (D-N.J.) is expected to offer his bill to end federal contracts with companies that violate child labor laws during the pending Senate draft markup. Booker’s child labor bill is being co-sponsored by conservative Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.).

Child labor in the farm bill is part of a larger debate playing out in states across the country. Many red states, Iowa among them, have challenged federal child labor laws in an attempt to expand available child labor at any cost. 

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As we have discussed previously, a number of politically charged issues remain in what has become an election-year farm bill. We can now add ending child labor in large meatpacking plants to a growing list of issues that are popular among rural voters but would likely never be supported by the agriculture trade associations and corporations that GT Thompson refers to as the third party required in a “Tripartisan” farm bill.

On Tuesday, Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member John Boozman (R-Ark.), released his caucus’s farm bill framework, a plan that echoes much of the rhetoric and talking points delivered earlier in the process by House Agriculture Republicans

“Our framework released today meets that call by modernizing the farm safety net, facilitating the expansion of access to overseas markets, fostering breakthroughs in agricultural research and growing the rural communities our farmers, ranchers and foresters call home—all while making a historic investment in conservation and protecting nutrition programs that help Americans in need,” Boozman said. 

The number of farmers nationwide impacted by these changes—and the number of voters likely to prioritize the Republican approach—is tiny. As reported earlier in The Cocklebur, Republicans’ plan to raise reference prices is expected to benefit fewer than 6,000 farms nationwide, according to an analysis from the Environmental Working Group (EWG). EWG found that raising reference prices would help only 0.3% of the nation’s nearly 2 millions farms, mostly large peanut, cotton, and rice operations in Southern states.

Senate Agriculture Committee Republicans hail from the heart of rowcrop country in the Midwest and South. Their version of “supporting farmers” means increasing government payments to a relatively small number of producers, further concentrating wealth and market power among what we call “Monopoly Farmers.

Senate Republicans would also make some cuts to SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as food stamps), a program that serves thousands more constituents than government payments to farmers. In Boozman’s home state of Arkansas, for instance, only 10,881 farms receive government payments of any kind according to the most recent Ag Census. More than 240,000 Arkansans receive SNAP nutrition benefits each month.

Democrats are expected to release their full farm bill draft sometime this summer. Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) has not commented on the Booker child labor proposal at this point.

We expect a similar process when the Senate committee debates their farm bill draft, though the outcomes are likely to be significantly different in the Democrat-led Senate. Democrats will not offer SNAP cuts, nor are they likely to expand farm subsidies through the same mechanisms proposed in the House.

In addition to SNAP, row crop subsidies and child labor, the Senate committee process will be the next major step in the farm bill reauthorization. We will see if Senate Democrats push for farm bill reforms that could win them serious political praise in many rural circles. Those would address corporate power, protect states’ rights, ban factory farm polluters from conservation programs, strengthen the Packers and Stockyards Act and reform checkoff programs.

We’ll find out soon enough. They’ve got their work cut out for them. The current farm bill expires on September 30.

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.