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What’s Happening with the 2023 Farm Bill?

— September 5, 2023

The 2023 Farm Bill is a canvas for aspirational political goals, whether that’s easing hunger, mitigating climate change, or fighting “the woke agenda.”

The farm bill doesn’t sound like it matters much beyond this country’s amber waves of grain, but it impacts everyone who eats, which hopefully means you. On the table every five years, this omnibus bill sets the agenda for all things agricultural and a few more besides. As with any big legislation, it’s both an opportunity for real change and improvement in systems that affect our daily lives, and the potential for both policy and politics to go profoundly pear-shaped, should one faction or another decide that ideology matters more than hungry, hardworking Americans and the land we love. So, what’s in the 2023 Farm Bill and why should it matter to you?

The roots of the farm bills, as we know them today, stretch back to the 1930s and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, and were enacted in three parts to advance three goals. Those were to ensure equitable crop prices for both farmers and consumers, to make sure there was enough food, and to preserve our natural resources during a time when the Dust Bowl was still fresh in the collective memory. Although plenty has changed and political priorities have shifted since those days (for example, nutrition was first included in 1973), those original goals are still central to each farm bill.

According to the introduction to H.R. 1824, officially the “Food and Farm Act,” the purpose of the 2023 Farm Bill is “[t]o reform the safety net for farmers and ranchers, enhance soil, water, and habitat conservation, encourage beginning farmers and ranchers, strengthen nutrition for Americans, support agriculture research and innovation, reduce food waste, improve animal welfare, and invest in regional food systems, and for other purposes.”

Because it’s still a work in progress (the sausage is still being made, you might say), a great deal could change between now and the day the final form becomes law. Input from constituents who contact their congresscritters, lobbying by farm and policy advocacy organizations, support or opposition for marker bills like the EATS Act which are introduced by lawmakers hoping they’ll be rolled into the larger Farm Bill, and contentious Congressional dealmaking will surely affect the end result.

Here are some of the wish list items that various stakeholders would like to see addressed by the bill.

Remember “Beef, it’s what’s for dinner” and “Got Milk”? Those ads are paid for by checkoff programs, an element of past farm bills which gave farmers an opportunity to pool their funds for industry marketing campaigns that benefit all such producers. In recent years, however, checkoff funds have been misused, diverted for lobbying purposes that benefit large producers, political campaigns, even vacations. Farm Action, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting fairer opportunities for small farmers, advocates for checkoff reform, starting with making the payments voluntary again, and possibly ending them altogether. Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) and Representative Nancy Mace (R-SC) introduced a bipartisan marker bill to reform checkoffs that could be included in the 2023 Farm Bill.

RAFI-USA, an organization which advocates for “economically, racially, and ecologically just farm communities,” has four major areas they’d like the 2023 Farm Bill to tackle. One is more robust protection against corporate consolidation, to give farmers more choices and greater resilience. Another is to incentivize and support climate-friendly farm practices. They’d also like to see a more level playing field for small scale farm ventures, especially Indigenous, BIPOC and beginning farmers. Finally, they would like to see more localized, accessible infrastructure, such as processing plants, training organizations, and markets where producers sell direct to consumers.

The National Association of Conservation Districts has a great many agenda items. Among those, they’d like to ensure that farmers are fairly compensated for implementing conservation practices during this time of higher prices, especially in underserved communities such as tribal lands. Additionally, they would like to see more opportunities for experienced conservation workers to mentor younger employees, support conservation in urban areas, and protect more watershed areas to help rural communities adapt to large scale weather volatility.

In 2018, after dairy farmer Leon Statz lost his battle with depression and ended his life, his wife of 34 years, Brenda, founded the Farmer Angel Network along with several of her friends. Farmers commit suicide at a significantly greater rate than the general population, and between 2000 and 2018, suicide rates in rural communities increased by 48%. The Farmer Angel Network supports a proposal to include permanent funding for the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network in the farm bill, to provide mental health resources for agricultural producers.

SNAP logo graphic, of a stylized grocery bag holding bread, milk, eggs, fruit and vegetables.
Image by the U.S. Department of Agriculture via Flickr. CC BY 2.0

Just as the farm bill is the canvas for the aspirations of those who would use it to mitigate climate change, feed the hungry and improve equity, it’s also an opportunity for those who “want to root out ‘woke’ ideologies.” Representative Bob Good (R-VA), for example, sees the SNAP program as a vote-buying scheme for Democrats, since, as he told the Washington Examiner, “Democrats don’t have any farmers in their districts.” Really, now?

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) accounts for the vast majority – 80% – of spending allocated by the farm bill. SNAP, once known as “food stamps,” originated in a program that purchased surplus commodities from farmers and distributed them to those who needed food during the Great Depression. Later, it evolved into a stamp-based program whereby people who received public assistance could purchase tokens that were exchanged for food; for every dollar stamp they bought, they received an additional fifty cent stamp that could be traded for the surplus commodity food. Since families could decide which foods they wanted, it was a more market-based solution than simple distribution of excess produce.

Currently, the farm bill codifies how the SNAP program works, and who qualifies to receive benefits, a perfect fit since it is considered to be not only a benefit program for hungry people, but also a significant subsidy for farmers. However, at a time when assistance is already insufficient, hardline conservatives in Congress are eager to gut the program, claw back benefits, or at least make more people (especially those between ages 50-65) work part time to receive them, even if the jobs aren’t there.

It’s worth noting that all able-bodied adult SNAP recipients who haven’t received a waiver are already required to be looking for work, training for a job, or working at least part time; a third of recipients do earn an income while more than two-thirds of recipients are exempt from these requirements because they are children, disabled, or too old. Some states have waived the work requirements, but Republican lawmakers are seeking to federally override any state’s right to do so.

The culture war over the 2023 Farm Bill is going to have to wait, though.

Officially, Congress has until the end of September to re-up on the Farm Bill, before provisions from the 2018 bill will begin to sunset, with some policies reverting to those from the 1940s. With the long August recess, messy budget fight ahead, and a government shutdown looming, though, this typically bipartisan, “must-pass” legislation may well be delayed into 2024. One hopes that the adults in the room, whatever their faction, can join with those who represent heavily rural farm districts and hungry people, to hash out something to benefit the country. After all, isn’t that why we sent them to Washington?

Related: A Moment to Consider Food System Collapse


H. R. 1824 Food and Farm Act
Farm Bill Primer [PDF]
RAFI-USA Farm Bill Priorities
America Has a Chance to Make Farming More Climate Friendly
National Association of Conservation Districts’ 2023 Farm Bill Requests [PDF]
Farm Groups Urge Congressional Opposition to the EATS Act
Reform Corrupt Checkoff Programs
A Death in Dairyland Spurs a Fight Against a Silent Killer
Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network could get permanent funding within the Farm Bill
This Farm Bill Could Reshape the Food System. Here Are 10 Proposals at the Center of the Fight.
Congress tackles food stamp changes in the farm bill
History, Background, and Goals of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
The three big questions that lie ahead for the new Farm Bill
2024 SNAP Benefit Increases Aren’t Enough. Here’s Why
House GOP pushes tougher work requirements for food stamp recipients
How Big Food Corporations Take Advantage of SNAP
The Road to the 2023 Farm Bill: A Strong Nutrition Title and the Rural/Urban Alliance
Food stamps already have work requirements. Now, GOP lawmakers want tougher ones.
Inside the House GOP plan to avoid a farm bill floor catastrophe
McConnell concedes farm bill will be late; Stabenow eyes year-end

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