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Why the Farm Bill is a big deal, and not just for farmers

A field of wheat is seen.

Members of Congress are in the early stages of writing one of the most consequential laws of the session: the Farm Bill.

Congress passes a new Farm Bill every five years. It’s a big deal, and not just for farmers. The bill controls how billions of taxpayer dollars are distributed, and sets crop subsidies, funds agricultural research, and insurance.

In addition, the bill also governs social programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. It also involves a number of environmental measures.

Jonathan Coppess, director of the Gardner Agriculture Policy Program at the University of Illinois, spoke to the Texas Standard about the rationale behind the bill’s structure. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: So did these diverse interests within a single bill cause friction when it comes to moving it through Congress?

Jonathan Coppess: Usually what they do is they help bring a lot of votes across different regions and interests or factions within Congress. So the food assistance interests, the farm subsidies, farm assistance interests, and then environmental and conservation. So the strength of the farm bill has really been this kind of three component coalition that’s really helped it to gather the votes in the House and the Senate and move through a very complex and difficult process.

So there are many interests. But is there any chance that it could be restructured to only include agricultural issues?

Well, what we have seen for quite some time, but probably most directly in the last two farm bill efforts, there aren’t really the votes, particularly in the House of Representatives, to move just farm program payments. So it’s really hard to get the 218 votes in the House and the 50 or 60 votes needed in the Senate when the only thing the bill would do would be helping a small subset of farmers.

So what do you think is the biggest sticking point or sticking points when it comes to passing this next version of the farm bill?

Well, the biggest issue is going to be around spending and budget concerns, and that usually focuses a lot of political and partisan attention on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – used to be called “food stamps.” It’s the biggest program in the bill. It’s about 80 to 85% of all the spending – mandatory spending – in the bill. And so if the focus is on “we’ve got to cut spending, cut spending,” then, you know, the sort of easiest thing is you look at the biggest spending item and that attracts a lot of attention. We tend to miss the fact that more than 40 million Americans and households and families are receiving this assistance as a large program in terms of the number of people who are helped by it. And ultimately it’s helping them buy food, which benefits farmers.

Can you talk a little bit about the conservation efforts that are part of the bill? 

Yeah, and again, back to even your first question, we really started the conservation title in 1985. It was in direct response to the farm economic crisis, which was coupled with a huge crisis around soil erosion. And so since ’85, this has been kind of the third main component of the bill. It’s expanded and grown over time.

So it kind of started as a program called the Conservation Reserve Program that helped take acres out of production that were highly eroded or environmentally sensitive. And today, now we are about $6 billion a year, kind of the largest federal investment on private lands for conservation. And so everything from helping cover part of the cost of a conservation practice – so a farmer wants to put in new irrigation or cover crops or grass waterways and buffer strips – some of these programs will help with the cost of that. You know, we continue some of the more traditional reserve programs – easement programs – that, say, restore wetlands and things like that. So it has a pretty broad scope of different practices and different conservation outcomes that we want to see.

So to improve sustainability and also benefits wildlife?

Depending on the program, yeah. I mean, if we think about the cost share assistance to farmers to put in new conservation practices, that’s really going to help with sustainability. So, you know, improving soil health, improving water quality issues – there are programs like the reserve programs that help with wildlife habitat or help restore habitat.

So how does this farm bill compare to the previous one?

Well, that’s the big question. And I think really the big driver in this is going to be what happens around the debt ceiling negotiations, which are not a farm bill issue – obviously much bigger than the farm bill – but it’s the kind of big ticket issue that will dictate a whole lot of other issues after it. So whatever a deal looks like around the debt ceiling could very well impact what funds are available to rewrite the farm bill. What has to get cut and, you know, if we’re cutting programs and spending, that obviously makes the politics extraordinarily difficult to get the votes for a bill.

And so do you expect any major changes from the 2018 bill to this year’s version?

If they’re not required to cut spending, then I think it kind of holds in a status quo type situation because there’s just not an easy way to change the spending items. One of the big outlying questions, again, is if the debt ceiling negotiations don’t require huge cuts or really significant cuts, the other outlying question is there is about $18 billion in additional funding for conservation that was provided by the Inflation Reduction Act. And so outside of a debt ceiling, that’s probably the next big political discussion – is whether those funds and programs that receive that funding continue to do so or whether those get changed and used to pay for changes elsewhere. And it revolves around this set of budget questions, really.

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