Rural Action Caucus Panel Games Reveal the Potential of Farm Bills

Now more than a month overdue, the fate of the farm bill remains up in the air as rural areas look for clues as to what to expect.

Although the five-year bill historically gets overwhelming bipartisan support in the end, the past three have also missed their deadlines, and the changing dynamics in the House of Representatives over the past two months will test negotiations in 2023 and potentially in 2024.

The 2018 farm bill, for example, was passed in December after it expired on September 30. Rural policy experts discussed the potential for the bill during the NACo Rural Action Caucus Symposium Nov. 4-6 in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, the first major NACo conference or gathering in West Virginia.

“I think the issue is honestly about the relationship in the House,” said Mikayla Boday, senior staff professional for the Senate Agriculture, Food and Forestry Committee.

“The House has very, very strict caucus rules about new programs, new authorizations, new spending offset by cuts and other kinds of programs, and we want to follow those rules as much as we can, but of course not at the expense of providing what we believe is meaningful rural policy,” Boddy noted.

Those policies, Cindy Aksne said, will reflect the need to address significant changes since 2018, following the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, international conflicts that have disrupted food supplies, and more.

Prior to joining the USDA as a senior adviser, Axne represented Iowa in the House after working in state government.

In 2018, the farm bill authorized $867 billion over five years.

In May, the Congressional Budget Office released a baseline estimate that the next farm bill would be approved at $1.5 trillion over 10 years, based on mandatory farm programs and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

“Something we should be looking at is how this applies to things like climate resilience, disrupting the supply chain, making sure our food systems are safe,” Aksne said.

Bodi added that there is a need to support the continued work of small farmers and the opportunity to build new markets for these farmers.

She detailed some of the findings of committee chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) from her home state, which include a decline in proportional population levels in rural communities and a nearly 50 percent decline in the number of family farms over the past 50 years. Bodey said Stabenow also sees opportunities that could play out elsewhere in rural America. The farm bill, Boddy said, could support those trends.

“In the last few years, we’ve seen a lot of explosion in Michigan, of our tourism economy, a lot of continued growth around telecommuting and the ability for people to choose more independently where they want to live,” she said.

“We want to try to use these things.”

All the funding and programming, however, won’t do much if people and local governments can’t access them, and rural counties often don’t have the staff bandwidth to navigate the applications and comply with reporting requirements. Making farm bill programming more user-friendly sticks out as low-hanging fruit for Congress.

“For rural communities to have access to these funds and these resources is a challenge,” said Tony Pippa, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who leads the nonprofit’s Reimagining Rural Policy initiative.

“Looking at what’s there for rural areas in these particular bills — we’re counting over $460 billion worth of resources that could be really meaningful for rural places … so we have the capacity and the technical assistance and what it takes to be able to making sure we’re maximizing the public benefit of these funds and getting them to the places that can use them the most, I think that should be a big part of the conversation on this particular farm bill.”

In addition to ease of access to farm bill programs, the commission is also focusing on increasing bureaucratic efficiency, Boddy said.

“For us, it’s about the efficiency of the programs that the USDA has for rural development right now, but also about making sure that the USDA for rural development is talking to the other agencies that are responsible for the prosperity of rural areas [and] Removing some of these barriers is not just about the application process, but finding ways to be creative about compliance,” she said.

Pippa said some rural communities don’t want to apply for programs that have matching requirements.

“Rural areas have a disproportionately lower amount of local philanthropy than other places,” he said. “We also know that your budgets are often tight, you often have tighter fiscal space, so putting that compliance requirement and doing that cost share can [remove] immediate barrier.

Bowdy suggested county officials provide examples of challenges they’ve faced seeking help from the Department of Agriculture.

“It really helps the members [of Congress] to hear examples on the ground of a program that you’ve tried to apply for or a grant initiative or a loan initiative that you’ve tried to apply for and what exactly those barriers are,” she said. “As you consider reaching out to members of Congress, I would really encourage you to emphasize the capacity” and limitations county staff have in trying to access federal programs.

“I think capacity is one of the hardest things to discuss both in my position and in front of members,” and describing specific opportunities that have been lost due to understaffing can paint a picture.

Axne added that agricultural research funding should reflect its new importance as the world changes, and could dovetail with the Biden administration’s focus on regionalism.

“We haven’t had enough funding for agricultural research for a long time,” she said. “They want to support the regional centers to make sure that across the country we support multiple industries, including agriculture, so that we can see success as communities and as a state as a whole.”

As negotiations continue into 2023, the 2018 farm bill programs should cover most needs, but it will begin to expire early next year.

“At this point, it would be irresponsible for Congress not to consider extending the farm bill for at least a year,” Boddy said, dismissing the utility of short-term extensions.

“The reality is that farmers need the certainty of a full crop year, especially in our farm assistance programs, in order for those programs to work properly.”

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