Volunteer with the Food Systems team
NOTE: This is the first of a two-part series on the 2023 Farm Bill. Part 1 offers insight into the federal level and Part 2 examines support in the Minnesota legislature.
In this year’s midterm elections, a few key issues drove voters to the polls: reproductive rights, inflation, and public safety.
But this year’s elections will also impact another issue: sustainable agriculture and the 2023 Farm Bill.
At the federal level, the makeup of both legislative bodies will drive discussion and funding for the next Farm Bill, while locally, Minnesota’s first unified government since 2014 gives the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) party the power to be leaders on sustainable and regenerative agriculture.
The Farm Bill—a package of legislation first passed in the 1930s—expires every five years, setting federal funding for both agriculture and nutrition programs. In each legislative body, the majority party dictates agriculture committee hearing topics and drafts their own version of the bill, indicating their commitment to conservation programs and climate-resilient farming.
Developing from Indigenous knowledge and gaining traction in recent years, regenerative agriculture—a system of farming focused on improving soil health, increasing farm biodiversity, and sequestering carbon—is regarded as a key approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from farming and increasing the industry’s sustainability.
Regenerative agriculture practices typically fall under the Farm Bill’s conservation title, with methods including the addition of rotated grazing for livestock, low- or no-till farming, and usage of cover crops to promote soil health and water quality. However, program awareness and accessibility remain a challenge, with 71% of young farmers unfamiliar with federal programs.
Following late victories in Nevada and Arizona, Democrats retained control of the Senate, then added a 51st vote with Sen. Raphael Warnock’s victory in the Georgia runoff over former football star Herschel Walker. Warnock currently sits on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, having previously introduced legislation included under the COVID relief bill to provide debt relief for farmers of color across the U.S.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) will remain the committee’s chair. Her strong support for local foods and specialty crops, important to Michigan’s agriculture economy, presents an opportunity to shift the Senate’s direction to more sustainable Farm Bill legislation. Further, Democrats will have the ability to fill an open seat, with longtime Sen. Patrick Leahy’s (D-VT) retirement. Leahy previously sat on three subcommittees focusing on conservation, organics and specialty crops, and local food systems. There is hope that the seat will be filled by a senator supporting climate-resilient agriculture, such as Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), who previously introduced the Agriculture Resilience Act aimed at net-zero agriculture. Speaking on the legislation, Heinrich notes that “Through regenerative agriculture and soil management, our producers can simultaneously make their land more resilient and play a large role in the fight against climate change.”
Pushback (led by ranking member and recent recipient of the conservative-leaning American Farm Bureau Federation’s Golden Plow award Sen. John Boozman (R-AR)) will likely center around a continuation of the status quo. Conservative policies for the upcoming Farm Bill include crop insurance programs benefiting large commodity farmers, emphasis of the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) toward livestock producers, and focus of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) on non-productive land.
On the House side, leadership of the House Agriculture Committee will change hands from Rep. David Scott (D-GA), a strong proponent of tackling racial inequity and climate through agriculture, to Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-PA). Thompson has been critical of more progressive outlooks on U.S. agriculture, not wanting to “satisfy people that at their core think agriculture is a blight on the landscape.” Under Thompson’s leadership, inclusion of regenerative agriculture in the 2023 Farm Bill might be a hard-fought victory due to his aversion to “buzzwords like regenerative agriculture” and disdain toward “overemphasiz[ing] climate within the conservation or research title.”
It remains to be seen just how conservative the House’s recommendations will be, but pushing this agenda are two current committee members, Rep. Trent Kelly (R-MS) and Rep. Michael Cloud (R-TX), who sit on the Republican Study Committee (RSC). In its proposed 2023 budget, the RSC would remove the nutrition title from the farm bill, prohibit new enrollment in conservation programs, and aim to enact the ACRE Act.
Despite aiming to “prohibit USDA discrimination” or preferential treatment based on a variety of identifiers including race and sex, the bill is in response to the $5 billion in agriculture debt relief targeted toward farmers of color under the COVID relief bill. The ACRE Act and similar legislation could prevent the USDA and the federal government from rectifying previously discriminatory practices against BIPOC farmers and ongoing inequity in farmer relief packages.
Since the ACRE Act lacks support for emerging, BIPOC farmers, it also lacks support for their more sustainable practices, as 86% of young farmers identify their practices as regenerative. Easing pathways to land and capital access for emerging farmers through Farm Bill titles allows the federal government to move toward regenerative agriculture and racial equality.
With control of the House and Senate split, bipartisan support is the likely course for the final version of the next Farm Bill. Expanded funding for local livestock and poultry processing, rural broadband, continued conservation programs, and support for emerging farmers all have advocates on both sides of the aisle.
Part 2 of this blog article addresses this topic relating to our state legislature.
To make a difference on regenerative and sustainable agriculture in Minnesota, join MN350’s Food Systems team.
Jackson Sweeney graduated from Villanova University in 2021 and is originally from the Twin Cities. He is interested in working at the intersection of public policy, agriculture, and grassroots communication throughout Minnesota. Jackson has been an intern with MN350’s Regenerative Agriculture team since September.