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On September 30, the current five-year Farm Bill will expire, leaving many farmers in limbo and consistent federal support for rural communities in question. While both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate are drafting their versions of the Farm Bill, it is unlikely that a Farm Bill will be written, passed and signed by the president by the end of September. This delay will have big implications for farmers and rural communities, as will the final text of the bill itself.

This behemoth bill is the country’s nutrition bill, but it also provides funding for on-farm conservation, crop insurance, credit, commodities, forestry, research, and many other parts of the food and farm system. In ways large and small, the Farm Bill influences what goes on our plates, how much we pay for it, and how much the farmers who grow and raise the food receive for the work they put in.

We expect the Farm Bill to accomplish three main outcomes:

  1. Respond to the climate crisis, including greater support for low-emitting, more resilient agroecological farming;
  2. Ensure fairness in agriculture markets, where a handful of global companies have too much power to drive prices down for farmers, lower wages for workers and increase prices for consumers;
  3. Strengthen community food systems through greater support for farmers and infrastructure providing more sustainable, healthy food for local economies.

In order to make additional investments in these categories worthwhile, the Farm Bill should help alleviate the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) staffing shortage. As it stands, there are too few staff members doing too much work, and it adversely affects everything the department does. Namely, staff in local county USDA offices are paid too little and are experiencing unsustainable levels of turnover. As most local USDA jobs involve building deep and trusting relationships with farmers, turnover and high workload impedes this core responsibility.

Additionally, USDA roles are paperwork intensive. Local agents have lots of forms to fill out on behalf of their farmer clients. Understanding the forms and ensuring low-resource farmers receive sufficient assistance takes a lot of bandwidth and care, meaning that current staff are set up to fail. They are burned out and stressed.

Farmers of color, low-income farmers and other historically disadvantaged farmers are at risk of becoming further disadvantaged by this situation. In the case of grant programs through USDA, it is an unfortunate fact that it takes less paperwork to send out large grants to fewer farmers than to send out smaller grants to more farmers — the kinds of grants that can transform human-scale operations for the better. If we want equitable grantmaking, either the process needs to be simpler, or better outreach and more staff time need to be dedicated to these smaller farms. In the case of Black farmers, Indigenous farmers and other farmers of color, decades of discrimination at the hands of USDA takes a lot of remedying and trust building. With a different face behind the desk every month, this is nearly impossible. In other words, USDA staffing is an essential tool in making a more equitable food and farm system while keeping farmers afloat. Staffing is also an essential tool in the fight against climate change.

Respond to the climate crisis

This Farm Bill could be the first true “Climate Farm Bill.” As climate change is an all-encompassing crisis, investments and reforms are needed across all titles of the Farm Bill.

The most obvious way to write a Climate Farm Bill is to invest in the Conservation Title. This title funds programs such as the Conservation Stewardship Program that help farmers build resilience through strategies to reduce synthetic inputs, install more natural systems, and grow new crops that are well-suited to the landscape and operation. Additionally, reforms must be made that steer conservation funding away from large, intensive livestock operations and toward smaller, more sustainable farms. There already exist popular programs that pay farmers to farm in more resilient ways, but these programs are oversubscribed and underfunded — an issue that should be addressed with long-term, stable funding.

Another way to incorporate climate into the Farm Bill is through reforms to credit, commodities and insurance. Under current policy, farmers who plant a lot of one crop and use input-intensive methods of agriculture are treated as less “risky” than those who are farming with climate in mind. That simply isn’t true. As we have seen in recent years with intensifying droughts, floods, wildfires and other climate change-related weather events, those who diversify their operations and try to emulate natural systems on their farms are better equipped to handle climate shocks.

Many of these needed investments and reforms are included in the Agriculture Resilience Act, a comprehensive bill that tackles the challenges to agriculture posed by climate change and offers farmer-oriented solutions. Not only does this bill invest in popular and oversubscribed conservation programs, but it also helps build infrastructure for adaptation through climate hubs, resources for alternative manure management and better support for organic farmers.

Another bill that can improve the Conservation Title and build resilience is the EQIP Improvement Act. This bill aims to improve the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP, a federal reimbursement program for farmers wishing to install conservation practices on their land. EQIP has existed since the 1996 Farm Bill and is popular among farmers, though it has been amended in the years since to fund types of farming that are not truly environmental. In fact, some of the most expensive practices paid for by EQIP are manure lagoons and covers for largescale concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), popularly known as factory farms. The EQIP Improvement Act seeks to repeal provisions of EQIP that steer so much money toward factory farms while also reducing the amount the federal government will pay for the costliest industrial-scale practices.

These investments and reforms can help reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and other climate change-causing gases, as well as prepare our farm and food system for additional shocks.

Ensure fairness in agriculture markets

IATP has long advocated for a Competition Title within the Farm Bill. In essence, such a title would focus on concentration within the agriculture industry and work to ensure no companies have too much control over the agricultural marketplace. As it stands, four meat companies control by some estimates 80% of the marketplace for beef. With such concentration, behemoth companies are able to set the rates on farmer costs or what farmers are paid based on what maximizes their profits, not based on fair rates for farmers.

Meat is not the only part of agriculture that suffers from corporate concentration. When it comes to machinery, grain markets, seeds and transport, farmers find themselves with fewer and fewer options, requiring them to pay more and earn less. Often, companies exert their influence across several nodes of the agricultural supply chain, leaving more certainty for the company and less certainty for the farmer.

Another way companies put U.S. farmers at a disadvantage is through labeling. As it stands right now, a steer can be raised and fed for the entirety of its life in Brazil, Argentina or any other country, shipped to the U.S., slaughtered and have its meat labeled as “Product of the USA.” U.S. farmers who play by the rules and raise their meat in the U.S. can’t compete with this market manipulation, and consumers are duped into thinking they are supporting farmers in their own country.

Some marker bills that promote more competition in the food and farm system include the Farm System Reform Act, Meat Packing Special Investigator Act, Beef Labeling Act, Opportunities for Fairness in Farming Act and the Farmland for Farmers Act.

Strengthen community food systems

As the COVID-19 pandemic taught us, community food systems are more resistant to global shocks than global food systems are. While there are many benefits to global trade, community food systems have myriad more, some obvious and some more subtle. One of the clearest benefits of community food systems is the short distance food needs to travel to get from farm to plate. Shocks such as war and weather can snarl global shipping routes, taking years to remedy while leading to price spikes and shortages in the meantime (for example, wheat from Ukraine).

Rural economies are much less diversified than they were just a few decades ago. There are fewer farmers on the land, leading to fewer related businesses, such as local butchers, mills, farm implement stores and banks that understand the needs of small farms, not to mention other important businesses like grocery stores, restaurants, clothing stores and others that make communities livable, vibrant and unique. When former Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz told farmers to get big or get out, he wasn’t telling only small farmers to get out, but also these small businesses, paving the way for more market consolidation by the largest companies.

The Farm Bill can strengthen community food systems in a variety of ways. One way is through direct help with marketing for farmers wishing for direct sales straight to the consumer or opportunities at farmers markets. Additional opportunities exist in connecting farmers with large local buyers such as school districts, hospitals, and nursing homes. When considering local foods, an institution that has a lot of buying power is USDA itself. If USDA wants to value small, local, sustainable farmers, it can choose to buy food from those farmers for the department’s own food needs, as well as those across government.

Some examples of bills that have been introduced that bolster community food systems are the Strengthening Local Processing Act, Local Farms and Food Act, and the Farm System Reform Act. The Farm Bill is a prime opportunity to incorporate these bills into national policy for the betterment of farmers and eaters across the country.

What happens now?

IATP will continue to advocate for the 2023 Farm Bill to be a force for positive change in regard to climate change, fairness for farmers and stronger community food systems. Already, the Farm Bill has shaped our agricultural landscape — from what grows in the field to how many people still live on the land. While the timing of this year’s bill remains unclear, it is important that Congress writes this bill to strengthen rural communities by making them more climate resilient, ensuring fairness in the marketplace and building community food systems. The Farm Bill is written every five years. That means the bill written this year will have a major impact for years to come — it is important that we get it right.

For more context on the Farm Bill from IATP, listen to our six-episode series, The Farm Bill Uprooted, and visit our Farm Bill portal for additional articles.