Federal priorities could take the 'farm' out of the Farm Bill: Analysis

Dominik Dausch
Sioux Falls Argus Leader

When it comes to the 2023 Farm Bill, the Herculean legislative package that funds everything from federal nutrition programs à la SNAP to rural development initiatives, the "farm" parts of the legislation are starting to lose their emphasis.

A June 22 Congressional Research Service paper provided a baseline budget for all 12 titles once the multiyear bill is signed into law. More than $1.29 trillion is projected to go into this year's Farm Bill, compared to the $867 billion through the previous bill.

On paper, it appears farmers stand to gain from the increase in federal funding. However, where the nutrition budget sees massive gains − projected to take a $1 trillion slice of the pie − the more agricultural-oriented titles are either seeing much smaller bumps, stagnating or even outright losing funding.

Sen. John Thune, center, listens to South Dakota Wheat Growers Association vice president Doug Simons talk during a 2023 Farm Bill roundtable on Jan. 10, 2023. Thune gathered input from regional agriculture executives on what legislators should prioritize the omnibus, multiyear law.

Legislators like Sen. John Thune have been holding Farm Bill roundtable events with local crop and cattle producers to hear what people in the ag space think should be prioritized when the omnibus package passes the legislative finish line.

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Crop Insurance title is a section which prompts a peculiar request to the legislators: "Do no harm."

"The crop insurance program really has become the foundation, the anchor, the cornerstone, whatever you want to call it, of federal farm policy. And it wasn't always that way," Thune told Farm Forum after hosting a Farm Bill on Jan. 10. "It's been strengthened to where now it really does provide a floor, and farmers rely heavily upon it and they will tell you that, before you do anything else, just make sure that we've got a functional, strong crop insurance program."

Table comparing the 2018 Farm Bill budget and 2022 Farm Bill budget baseline.

As it currently stands, the aforementioned title could see a slight increase in federal dollars, as it's projected to rise a little over $1 billion to $79.7 billion.

But other farmer-centric titles don't appear to be faring so well: Commodities, which covers disaster assistance and supportive funding for major commodity crops, including wheat, corn, soybeans, peanuts, rice, dairy and sugar, stands to lose nearly $5 billion.

And Conservation, a section that covers programs that "encourage environmental stewardship of farmlands and improved management through land retirement programs, working lands programs, or both," the CRS document reads, is slated for $59.2 billion, roughly just as much as what the 2018 package allocated.

Dave Ellens, treasurer of South Dakota Corn Growers Association, told Farm Forum following the Jan. 10 roundtable with Thune that "it would be nice to see our portion of the bill grow," as farmers continue to grapple with historically high fertilizer prices and drought.

"Now, I'm not saying we need to take it from the nutrition side. What I'm saying is the Farm Bill needs to grow as a whole and our portion needs to grow apportionable … as the Farm Bill grows as a whole," Ellens said. "We need to make sure that when there is a disaster, the disaster payments are high enough to to pay for the disaster and what we've already put into that that crop. As it becomes more expensive to farm, whether equipment is part of that too, we need to make sure that these programs are large enough to cover the risks that these farmers are facing."

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Chart showing a projected budget for the 2023 Farm Bill in each title.

According to the CRS report, the Nutrition title has gained ground on spending through the decades: Where the 2008 saw Nutrition take up 67% of the budget, growing to 76% in 2018 and an estimated 84% this year.

South Dakota Pork Producers Council president Shane Odegaard, far-left, and Bob Drake, South Dakota Poultry Industry Association president, left, listen to fellow ag executives at the end of the table as they list their priorities for the 2023 Farm Bill on Jan. 10, 2023.

The current budget in front of farmers and legislators had Thune warn the Jan. 10 roundtable attendees the money "may be flat," his allusion to the possibility that margins may be tighter on farming-related programs once the Farm Bill gets pushed out the barn doors.

He blamed the direction of the budgeting on the "big fight" between coastal states. He said legislators from more urbanized states tend to push hard for Nutrition (and SNAP) but "tend to not care much about farm programs."

"Policy makers who represent agricultural states are going to have to be circumspect and wise about how we spend resources, and farmers, as well, in terms of their expectations, need to think about 'How can we become even more efficient?'" Thune said.