CFAES Farm Bill Summit focuses on “unprecedented times”

The Farm Bill Summit panel

Seven state and national agricultural experts spoke at the first CFAES Farm Bill Summit, held on Friday, Feb. 23, at The Ohio State University.

Hosted by Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES), the speakers unraveled the complexities of Farm Bill legislation and discussed how the bill shapes the future of farming and related industries.

Cathann A. Kress, vice president for agricultural administration and CFEAS dean, welcomed participants to the summit before Amy Ando, chair of the Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics (AEDE), shared examples of policies, in addition to the Farm Bill, that have had major impacts on agriculture.

She highlighted, as examples, the federal immigration policy, trade policy and market facilitation program, the Energy Policy Act of 2005, and the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. 

Every five years, Congress drafts a new Farm Bill, a huge, complex piece of legislation that supports agricultural producers and ensures hungry families have food on their table. Its path through Congress is always filled with competing interests and is a balancing act between partisan and bi-partisan arguments and agreements.

The latest Farm Bill was enacted into law in December 2018 and expired on September 30, 2023, without a replacement. A Farm Bill Extension was passed in November 2023 and extends the Farm Bill through September 2024.

Farm Bill legislation is a hodgepodge of policies made up of multiple chapters known as titles — 12 to be exact — that blended together make up a bill known as the biggest safety net for American farmers. The titles cover commodities, conservation, nutrition, trade, credit, rural development, research, forestry, energy, crop insurance, horticulture, and miscellaneous. Four titles account for 99% of anticipated farm bill mandatory outlays: nutrition, crop insurance, farm commodity support, and conservation.

Margaret Jodlowski, assistant professor in AEDE, said, “I don't think the delay to the 2024 Farm Bill really surprised any of us.” More often than not, Congress is late in the passage of Farm Bills.  

But Jodlowski was surprised at the $1.5 trillion projected cost of the current Farm Bill allocation. “This is a landmark for a few different reasons,” she said. “It's a remarkable sum of money and our first trillion dollar Farm Bill. The number represents a very significant increase from the 2018 Farm Bill cost of $428 billion.”

The biggest portion of the Farm Bill is always the nutrition title which helps to manage the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the consumer food assistance program for low income individuals and families.

A significant increase in the amount of money here is pushing us above that trillion dollar mark,” said Jodlowski. “The nutrition title always gets a lot of attention since it’s a very sizable piece of the pie. I think of it as the Pac Man of the Farm Bill—it sits there taking 81% of Farm Bill allocation.”

At the same time, she noted that proportionally, things don’t look too bad for farmers. A 20% increase in allocation towards agriculture and, in particular, Title 1 commodity programs is significant because it reflects a recognition of the projected possibility of price declines.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released its most recent farm income forecast, a broad measure of farm profitability. The forecast expects farm income to fall by nearly $40 billion from last year which follows a $29 billion decline from 2022 to 2023.

The most significant form of farm support in the Farm Bill are the Title 1 Commodity Programs, administered by USDA’s Farm Service Agency. Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) and Price Loss Coverage (PLC) options pay producers who have eligible historical base acres when prices and/or yields of covered commodities fall below a certain amount, regardless of their current planting decisions. 

“And so we have about an equal proportion of our farm safety net coming from commodity programs and crop insurance,” Jodlowski explained. “Risk management tools like these are vital to farmers and ranchers to mitigate the volatile nature of farming which includes cyclicalities and idiosyncratic shocks.”

The importance of this farm safety net cannot be overstated. There are events that impact some producers and not others, so there needs to be a safety net in place that protects against these shocks that cannot easily be predicted.

Unprecedented times have allowed politicians and agricultural experts to watch how the farm safety net has functioned. Disruptions, from all different sectors, included global trade, supply chains, the COVID-19 pandemic, all sorts of weather events, a record number of prevented-plant acres, record-high input costs, inflation, and other impediments.

“It was a very special case because it allowed us to see how the farm safety net actually functions when there is this level of disruption,” Jodlowski said. “The one thing that has stayed consistent is the need for a variety of risk management options like ARC, PLC, and marketing assistance loans that fit producer needs.”

While there is almost universal agreement that agriculture and farms require support, the “devil is in the details,” said Jodlowski. “Where those conversations fall apart is what sort of support to provide. Senator John Boozman, ranking member of the Senate Ag Committee, has been very vocal about reference price increases, which are the government-mandated minimum crop prices. He has received pushback because the cost estimates for these across-the-board price increases are quite significant. I think it’s going to be a very contentious issue.”

Much of that contentiousness can be laid at the feet of the unprecedented times we are in. “When you start getting into the people and the politics and the movers and shakers, we're still in a period with really high partisanship and contention in the political sphere that's contributing to possible delays,” said Jodlowski. “The functioning of the government is always last minute. It's the 11th-hour Hail Mary-style. That's what it seems to be like for everything, not just the Farm Bill.” Many policy experts speculate that if Congress doesn’t pass a Farm Bill before the end of June, it will likely be kicked down the road until after the 2024 elections.

The Farm Bill Summit also featured a panel of experts who spend a lot of their time in Washington, D.C. Moderated by Anne Knapke, deputy chief of staff in the Office of the Secretary for USDA, the panel included Sara Wyant, founder and president of AgriPulse Communications; Joe Shultz, executive director of the Platform for Agriculture and Climate Transformation; and Mary Kay Thatcher, senior manager of federal government and industry relations at Syngenta.

The panel of four discussed how traditional Farm Bill listening sessions give politicians opportunities to hear from farmers and capture their priorities. Republican Representative Glenn Thompson, chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture, did just that in the fall, then suggested $50 billion in cuts, mostly to climate change and public nutrition programs, to pay for larger spending on crop subsidies.

“Congressional Budget Office staff starting working on those wishlist items and figuring out where to find the money to pay for them and seeing which titles they can advance and find agreement on before starting to move forward with a Farm Bill,” said Wyant of AgriPulse. The problem is, after that first normal startup process, things kind of went awry.”

First, Kevin McCarthy was voted out as Speaker of the House, Then Mike Johnson was elected Speaker. “Now you had a whole bunch of new dynamics and a lot of things mucking up the process—not just the Farm Bill process, but the whole government where we don't know if we're going to have a government shutdown on March 1. This is anything but a normal process,” Wyant said.

USDA’s Anne Knapke discussed the Congressional calendar and the political realities it offers. “The outlook for the Farm Bill hinges right now on the appropriations bills. Will they move forward? Four of the appropriations bills will expire on Friday, March 1,” she said. “Plus, keep in mind that when the Senate returns, they have to do the impeachment hearing. And once they start the impeachment hearing, they can't do anything else. Even if the House could move forward, the Senate is going to be doing impeachment for a few days.”

Joe Shultz of the Platform for Agriculture and Climate Transformation, was more optimistic “It's super opaque, but there is a real progress happening. These committee processes are kind of a black box, but you can always tell if members are hunkered down and don't really want to talk about where the negotiations are or share their secret talks,” he said. “Silence is good. So insider tip, if there's a lot of silence about the Farm Bill, maybe that's a good thing.”

Syngenta’s Mary Kay Thatcher noted that she doesn’t see the compromise and mentality from the last Farm Bill this time. “Someone said we're working to get the best possible bill, not working to get the best bill possible. Now there are just so many lines in the sand,” she said. “There once was a really strong coalition, especially between farm groups and conservation and nutrition and rural development and research. It just isn't there now.”

Her solution? “Talk to members of Congress to reinforce the bipartisanship. Tell them we want you to be bipartisan. We want you to find a compromise. The farm bill and the ag community are one of the last remaining places where on a consistent basis, Republicans and Democrats get together,” she said. “They fight it out, they duke it out, but they know that they have to work together to get a bill done. And personally, it's one of the reasons I have loved working on Capitol Hill for 15 years, because it was one of the last refuges for bipartisan legislation.”

The Farm Bill Summit was closed out by David Marrison, interim director of the CFAES Farm Financial Management & Policy Institute (FFMPI) and a farm management field specialist.

Housed within OSU Extension, the FFMPI was launched in late 2022 to share research-based knowledge and best practices to help the 76,000 farm operations in Ohio become more profitable, help farmers better manage their businesses, and address agricultural policy issues affecting Ohioans. 

Three farm management field specialists were added to the existing farm office team 15 months ago which has allowed for expanded teaching and training, Marrison said. Seven thousand people were reached at 165 events by the new specialists.

“We trained 46 OSU Extension educators in farm financial management, which turned into six intensive courses being held across Ohio right now for farmers,” Marrison said. “We have a new estate planning tool and also teach an intensive grain marketing workshop that we plan to turn into an online platform. These decision tools can help farmers make their businesses more profitable.”

What about the Farm Bill? “OSU Extension’s response is to listen, monitor, collaborate, prepare, and then react,” Marrison said. “We've got the horses in the barn. As soon as the Farm Bill comes out, we’re ready to go across the state working side-by-side with our Farm Service Agency partners to offer training and decision tools. We’ll also react with special Farm Office live webinars for Ohio farmers.” 

Sherrie R. Whaley
For more information, contact: 

Margaret Jodlowski

David Marrison