The farm bill expires in a month, and Congress still needs to decide how much to spend
By Elizabeth Rembert , Food, Energy and Agriculture Reporter Nebraska Public Media, Harvest Public Media
Sept. 1, 2023, 5 a.m. ·
The pressure is on for Congress to pass a 2023 Farm Bill or file an extension before its Sept. 30 deadline.
But there are different ideas for what the new bill, which funds programs like food assistance and crop insurance, should look like – and cost.
Pat Westhoff runs the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri, where he and his team have been crunching the numbers for several options at the request of some lawmakers.
He said it doesn’t seem like there’s a consensus on if the bill will be bigger, smaller or stay roughly the same size as the 2018 version, which makes it hard to know if any policy changes are feasible.
“If you don't know whether you have money to spend or don't have money to spend, that's a problem,” Westhoff said. “That just makes it really tough for the committee staff and others involved in the processes.”
Balancing the scale
A budget target provides the foundation for dealmaking, he said. Without it, it’s like Congress is driving in the dark without headlights. The last time Congress specifically allocated additional money for the farm bill was in 2002.
Rep. Mike Bost, a Republican from southern Illinois, said he’s hoping for a bill that can keep costs in line with recent years.
“The most budget neutral as possible and still maintain the integrity,” Bost, who’s a member of the House Committee on Agriculture, said. “But understand that realistically, we know that it's going to be more expensive”
It’ll be more expensive due to higher food costs and shifting crop prices. An estimate from the Congressional Budget Office in May predicted that even without any changes from 2018, the 2023 Farm Bill could top $1 trillion for the first time ever.
Bost wants to tweak the 2018 version in some areas – like strengthening insurance for specialty crops and keeping the stricter requirements for food assistance Republicans negotiated in the June debt ceiling deal.
While he also thinks Congress should raise reference prices for crop support programs, Bost said that might be difficult as some representatives turn up the pressure to reduce government spending.
“The problem is, I don’t know how we do that and keep the votes,” the congressman said. “It’s like we’re operating on a scale. If you add something on one side, you’re going to have to take away something else to keep it balanced.”
Priorities for the bill
Others are hoping the new bill will include boosted support for environmental programs, like paying farmers to develop land conservation plans and incentivizing practices like cover crops to promote soil health.
Micheal Happ with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy said the climate crisis is affecting farmers and strengthening conservation policies could give them the tools to be more resilient.
“If farmers aren’t farming with climate in mind, that’s a result of current farm bill policy,” he said. “And there are ways we can write a new bill to steer it in a different direction.”
But meaningful policy changes may depend on a bigger farm bill, which Westhoff said is uncertain.
“Where’s the money going to come from for new proposals if no additional funding is going to be provided?” he asked. “It makes it difficult to square the circle, if you’re not getting outside money or if you can find money elsewhere in the bill.”
Consequences of delay
If Congress fails to pass a new bill by Jan. 1, 2024, some programs would revert back to 1940s-era policy that, among other things, would see the U.S. Department of Agriculture buying dairy products off the market, driving up consumer prices.
It’s a severe consequence that “nobody, not even in the dairy industry, wants to actually occur,” Westhoff said. “These are very old policies that are not consistent with the way we’ve been doing things for a long time now.”
In the meantime, Happ said a delayed farm bill is hurting farmers by injecting uncertainty into payment supports and disease monitoring programs.
“Some people look at these programs and say ‘Well, it’s the government, hopefully there’s a level of stability there,’” he said. “But it’s turning more and more into an unstable part of a farmer’s income stream.”
This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.