The Farm Bill Has Expired and Rural America Hangs in the Balance

If Democrats were strategic, they would seize this moment

Bryce Oates & Jake Davis October 4, 2023

While Republicans in the House of Representatives narrowly averted running the government off a cliff at the end of September, their reckless brinksmanship left rural America in a ditch by failing to reauthorize the farm bill.

The stakes for rural America could not be higher.

With tens of billions in critical federal funds up for negotiation—from nutrition benefits to farm programs, rural internet access to drinking water infrastructure, clean energy initiatives to soil conservation—there is little guarantee that federal investments will continue to flow. Farm conservation programs expanded through the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) are already under Republican attack.

Unfortunately, President Joe Biden and Congressional Democrats have yet to find their voice on the importance of passing a farm bill. It’s time for them to get to work. We need a 2023 Farm Bill that puts small farmers, working people and climate action first and eliminates handouts to a handful of wealthy corporations and mega-farms that are threatening the stability of our food system.

In January, when Republicans took over the House majority, Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson (R-Penn.) claimed leadership of the farm bill reauthorization process when he became Chair of the House Agriculture Committee. Thompson made promise after promise that he would lead his party to drafting and negotiating and passing an updated farm bill before it expired on September 30.

Thompson, along with a long list of his Republican colleagues, has failed even to complete the first step of the process. While the House Agriculture Committee has convened farm bill hearings, Thompson has not released a single word of the 2023 Farm Bill, even as the 2018 Farm Bill expired amid a self-imposed government shutdown crisis.

The Democrats in charge of the Senate Agriculture Committee could help fill this void, but their lack of bold and decisive leadership on the farm bill debate makes progress difficult. Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who is retiring in 2024, has doubled down on her commitment to passing a bipartisan bill, which most farm policy experts expect to result in a status quo farm bill with a few small adjustments.

The reality is that a status quo farm bill isn’t good enough. A good farm bill would provide policy direction to break up corporate agribusiness monopolies, protect food system workers, support rural infrastructure and clean energy projects, provide financial assistance to small farmers working to feed their neighbors along with greater funding for safety net programs like SNAP that help alleviate hunger.

But the Senate Agriculture Committee is being roadblocked by Ranking Member John Boozman (R-Ark.). Boozman wants to increase government payments and support for large-scale crop producers even as crop prices remain high. He is also attempting to cut or re-program conservation spending in the Democrats’ IRA, a bill that provided $20 billion in additional support for on-farm conservation practices that build soil health, reduce climate pollution and promote wildlife habitat restoration.

Boozman and the Senate Republicans appear to want to have it both ways. They want to increase budgets for crop production without funding previous commitments made to the thousands of conservation-minded family farmers currently applying for additional resources to make their operations cleaner and more environmentally friendly. 

At this point, there is no clear path to passing a farm bill any time soon, a painful reality underscored by this week’s historic ouster of Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Despite their claims to represent rural America,  Boozman and Thompson haven’t found compromise within their caucus, let alone a viable vision for farmers, rural communities and our food system. But for the Republicans to blame the dysfunction that is holding up the farm bill on their party’s extreme Right, which is hellbent on eviscerating the integrity of our democratic institutions, is misleading at best. Republicans as a whole have made endless concessions to a tiny minority that would rather hold Congress hostage than avert a government shutdown that could wreck untold damage to the economy and rural Americans.  

That means SNAP nutrition benefits for millions of poor and working class could be on the chopping block. That means farm supports could be insecure, unavailable or delayed during harvest season. That means farmers might decide to change their plans for installing conservation practices. That means rural electric cooperatives and telecommunications providers might not be able to finish projects they’ve already started. It means that billions of dollars in support promised to rural fire departments, health providers, water and sewage utilities and local food infrastructure might never come true.

Let’s be clear: by not releasing draft text of the 2023 Farm Bill or making it a priority in the legislative process, both parties deserve a share of the blame for the farm bill’s expiration. But in this case, it’s the Republicans who deserve nearly all of the credit.

These kinds of games shouldn’t surprise us at this point, but they do reinforce that Congressional Republicans and status quo Democrats couldn’t care less about getting things done for working people, the majority of farmers or small businesses in rural communities. If Democrats were strategic, they would seize this moment to press for a farm bill that makes life better for most Americans, particularly those in rural communities. A failure of nerve, or lack of attention while the iron is hot, would be a frustratingly lost opportunity.

(In fact, Congress’ failure to pass a new farm bill or extend the 2018 Farm Bill by December 31 would technically trigger a reversal to laws dating back to 1938 and 1949, the last time “permanent” provisions were put in place. In the past, this prospect has all but forced Congress to pass some kind of extension.)

This situation offers an opportunity to build new relationships between rural and urban voters sick and tired of incompetent government and growing corporate power. Whether or not that potential is reached is partially dependent on the role Democrats play over the next few months in passing a farm bill they’re willing to defend in 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.

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