July 22, 2022
Editor’s Note: This is the first post in a multi-part series taking a deeper look into the 2023 Farm Bill process. Over the course of the next year, the 2023 Farm Bill will take shape on Capitol Hill. These blog posts will be released as the process moves forward on the Hill, with updates and analysis as it relates to NSAC’s 2023 Farm Bill priorities.
Although the 2023 Farm Bill may still feel far away for some, the path to shaping it is already underway in Washington. In the lead up to the Farm Bill reauthorization process, the House and Senate hold multiple committee (and occasionally subcommittee) hearings which provide a forum for witnesses of various backgrounds – including government officials, interest groups, academics, and farmers – to present testimony with the hope of informing legislators’ decision-making. During these early hearings, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) works to assist the Committees by identifying and preparing strong advocates of sustainable agriculture to serve as witnesses. NSAC closely monitors these hearings to determine which issues members of Congress are most interested in, and whether they might align with the Coalition’s priorities. Listening closely to questions asked and testimony provided helps Coalition members better anticipate and understand the upcoming Farm Bill landscape.
Ultimately there are several main steps in the Farm Bill reauthorization process which begins with hearings, and moves through drafting new legislation, and getting the bill on the President’s desk. While NSAC has detailed the entire Farm Bill process, in this post, we focus on the early hearings.
The First Step
On Friday, April 29, 2022 the Senate Agriculture Committee held its first in a series of field hearings leading up to the upcoming 2023 Farm Bill reauthorization process. Hearings are an important part of the process, bringing attention to critical issues and needed policy changes by informing the debates and deliberations around the bill. Titled “Growing Jobs and Economic Opportunity: 2023 Farm Bill Perspectives from Michigan,” this hearing focused on agriculture, conservation, rural economic development, research, forestry, energy, and nutrition policies.
Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, began by setting the tone for bipartisanship by recalling that “Our most recent Farm Bill passed with the strongest bipartisan support ever, Senator Boozman and I continued that strong bipartisan tradition today at this first field hearing.” Sen. Stabenow also noted the dramatic circumstances the country currently faces as we begin the 2023 Farm Bill process. “The pandemic exposed vulnerabilities in our farm and food economy, and just as our country has been recovering economically, Putin threatens our worldwide food supply.” Sen. Stabenow stated the next Farm Bill “must address the economic security of our farmers, families, and rural communities by supporting a more resilient and sustainable food supply chain.”
At the end of her opening statement, Sen. Stabenow highlighted the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), a program she championed in the 2014 Farm Bill, as an exemplary instance of federal dollars working to promote region-based conservation. Using RCPP “our leading researchers at Michigan State and beyond are collaborating with farmers to help them adapt to the severe changes in the weather,” Stabenow noted.
Ranking Member Senator Boozman (R-AR) started his opening statement by also emphasizing the historic bipartisanship of the Farm Bill, commenting “I look forward to working with her [Sen. Stabenow] as we craft a bipartisan proposal that meets the needs of farmers, ranchers, forest landowners, rural communities, and other beneficiaries and participants in USDA’s programs in Michigan, Arkansas and every other state.” Sen. Boozman closed his statement by highlighting what he hopes to get out of the Farm Bill hearing process, asking “How can we make things easier for you to access the programs we have created?”
Several witnesses on the panel applauded the environmental, climate, and fiscal benefits achieved through federal conservation programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Qualities Incentive Program (EQIP). However, they also commented on the inadequate funding of these programs. Michigan Soybean Association representative and owner of Stewardship Farms Jake Isley said, “We need to adequately fund these programs and ensure they are flexible enough to accommodate this country’s wide range of crops, soil types, farming practices, and weather systems.”
The underfunding of conservation programs is a problem that NSAC has continually highlighted. A recent report by NSAC member, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy found that “between 2010 and 2020, just 31% of farmers who applied to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and only 42% of farmers who applied to the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) nationwide were awarded contracts.” The 2018 Farm Bill protected against cuts to total conservation funding and retained the full farm bill suite of conservation programs –including leaving CSP as a standalone program. There were also key policy provisions to strengthen conservation programs and increase benefits for soil health and water quality. In the 2023 Farm Bill, NSAC will advocate for significant increases in funding for working lands conservation programs, especially for CSP. Increased funding for federal conservation programs is more important than ever. These programs are proven solutions that help farmers respond to the increasing impacts of the climate crisis and have provided immense environmental and economic benefits nationwide.
Research and Organics
“There is perhaps no greater time to be involved in research pertaining to sustainable and nutritious food production and improving health and nutrition. We need solutions that will keep our food supply healthy, safe and secure, while protecting our natural resources. Since the need is constant, the food and agricultural industries provide great opportunities for economic prosperity, growth and increased employment,” stated Dr. Kelly Millenbah, Interim Dean of the Michigan State University College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the hearing.
Stephen Ewald, owner and operator of Ewald Farms, advocated for an increase in funding for organic agriculture in the 2023 Farm Bill. To bolster organic agriculture, the 2023 Farm Bill could “encourage research on organically permitted insecticides and fungicides to cope with the influx of climate-related disease and insect pressure,” said Ewald.
Juliette King McAvoy, of King Orchards, explained that the 2023 Farm Bill could support climate change adaptation and mitigation through research into more climate resistant crops, especially as more volatile weather events continue to cause back-to-back crop failures in Michigan.
Sen. Boozman asked an open question to the panel about their experiences working with cooperative extension and how they have benefited from working with extension services. Several witnesses emphasized the importance of cooperative extension as a resource for financial advice for beginning farmers, looking at the business aspects of conservation, especially as agriculture becomes more diverse and bringing in conservation and climate change practices can help generate income.
Ashley Kennedy, a dairy farmer in Michigan, spoke highly of her local business extension agent. “As a small beginning farmer, we don’t have the money to pay an accountant. She is amazing and the person I rely on for financial advice. Looking at the business end is really valuable as agriculture becomes more diverse and as we get lots of new farmers. Bringing in climate change and conservation efforts as a source of income will be very important.” McAvoy made a compelling case for research infrastructure through cooperative extension as a key solution for dealing with the increasing challenges of new diseases and pests due to climate change.
Several research and extension programs rely on the farm bill for their funding or authorization, including the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE), Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI), and Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). The 2018 Farm Bill established permanent, mandatory funding for OREI, which was in line with NSAC’s farm bill proposals. The 2018 Farm Bill more than doubled OREI funding, increasing it from $20 million to $50 million per year. To this day, SARE remains the only farmer-driven federal research program and has helped launch advances in sustainable agriculture like cover crops, management intensive grazing, dryland farming and conservation tillage. Unfortunately, the 2018 Farm Bill did not establish any dedicated funding for public plant breeding research, leaving this important research area woefully underfunded and limiting its ability to meet current and future needs. NSAC and its partners hope that Congress continues to support these vital research and organic programs in the 2023 Farm Bill and increases funding across the board.
Several witnesses testified to the positive impact farm bill programs have had on rural development. When witness Tom Vear opened his restaurant, he was able to get a loan from Northern Initiatives, a non-profit Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) that provides loans to small business owners and entrepreneurs in Michigan. “When we opened The Delft, Northern Initiatives used the Intermediary Relending Program to help us purchase our kitchen equipment. Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program funds helped finance many of our rural neighbors and to provide those businesses the technical assistance to manage their cash flow and market their goods and services. Since 1994, Northern Initiatives has provided 1,507 loans totaling over $88 million and helped to create or retain nearly 7,000 jobs. Nearly 85% of these loans have been to small businesses in rural Michigan,” Vear said.
Other witnesses talked about the benefits of programs like Value Added Producer Grants (VAPG), which help farmers and producers expand their operations and bring in higher consumer prices than raw products, which helps farmers and ranchers improve their bottom lines. The development of value-added products contribute to community and rural economic development as new and expanded jobs are created to support the production, packaging, and sale of these transformed foodstuffs. “Support from USDA Local Agriculture Market Program grants has provided critical resources so that we can support growers in our region and amplify our impact by training workers and leaders in the institutional food service arena with skills that they can use to further grow demand for local food,” said Rosie Florian of Kalamazoo Valley Community College at the hearing.
The sustainable agriculture community came away with some significant wins in the 2018 Farm Bill, particularly for local/regional food systems. NSAC was an early champion of the Local Agricultural Market Program (LAMP), created during the 2018 Farm Bill process, which combined VAPG and the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program (FMLFPP) in order to establish baseline funding for the core priorities of each. LAMP also includes a new regional public private partnership provision that uses federal resources to leverage private investment and encourage “foodshed” level approaches to developing regional food economies. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on rural economies and our country’s food supply chain highlighted the need for more resilient food systems. Moving into the 2023 Farm Bill process, NSAC hopes Congress will provide more funding to programs that are proven to strengthen local food systems and rural communities.
On Friday, June 17th, 2022, the Senate Agriculture Committee held its second field hearing in Jonesboro, Arkansas. The hearing entitled “2023 Farm Bill: Perspectives from the Natural State” featured two panels consisting of agricultural producers, industry stakeholders and rural community supporters from Arkansas. Unfortunately, neither the Michigan nor Arkansas field hearings afforded an opportunity for public testimony. NSAC hopes that moving forward in the process, the Senate Agriculture Committee process includes additional opportunities for grassroots farmer and stakeholder input. There have been no other Senate hearings announced for the 2023 Farm Bill, and while the hearing phase of the Farm Bill is only just beginning, the next step in the process is already underway. After hearings, the House and Senate Agriculture Committees each draft, debate, “markup” (amend and change), and eventually pass a bill. The two committees work on separate bills that can have substantial differences.
The House Agriculture Committee has held multiple farm bill hearings, both in the field and in DC, on topics like the role of USDA programs in addressing climate change, SNAP, rural development, urban agriculture, and more. A list of past House Agriculture Committee hearings can be found here. NSAC coalition members testified at several hearings such as Shakera Raygoza, owner of Terra Preta Farm, on behalf of the National Young Farmers Coalition. Raygoza called for increased funding for programs like SARE and emphasized how the USDA could help small-scale farmers adopt climate friendly-practices by “enhancing technical assistance and outreach, streamlining applications, and providing access to capital for initial costs.”