Last month, Dubuque County Farm Bureau President Wayne Kramer was at his home, where he raises cattle and grows row crops, preparing for another trip to Des Moines to lobby for agricultural interests.
Two days later, Tracey Braun — a waitress and mother in Dubuque — used her Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program card to buy carrots and celery at Dubuque Winter Farmers Market.
Both local residents are impacted on a daily basis by the same massive piece of federal law known commonly as the farm bill. Federal lawmakers must craft a new version this year, which will govern a huge swath of agricultural, nutrition, conservation and other programs for the next five years, impacting local residents’ incomes, health and nutrition.
Kramer knows full well the importance of this massive spending and policy program. That is why his county chapter and its national Farm Bureau umbrella lobby federal and state lawmakers, especially to protect government-backed crop insurance. Through that program, the federal government pays farmers for most crop losses because of natural disasters or other events farmers cannot control.
“It’d be too expensive for us otherwise,” Kramer said. “If they take that away from us, a lot of people would have to close up shop.”
Dubuque County Watershed Coordinator Eric Schmechel also is preparing to present his priorities to federal lawmakers, having planned an upcoming forum with their offices’ staffs.
“We’re looking at how we can leverage both the federal programs, state programs and our county programs to continue all of the progress we’ve made toward soil health and water quality,” he said.
Families with adults working at least part time but whose income is at or near poverty level can qualify for SNAP, also called food stamps, which receives the vast majority of the funding from the farm bill. They do not have the highly funded advocacy effort that agriculture interests and local governments have, so they rely instead on their federal lawmakers.
“Obviously, I don’t want to need it,” Braun said of SNAP. “But I am going to school and don’t always know what I’ll bring home from my job, like on a slow night. So, I don’t know what we would do without it right now.”
Chris Larimer, political science professor at the University of Northern Iowa, said the farm bill is one of the most significant legislative jobs of any Congress, but that it is spoken about least during campaigns, so some voters do not know much about it.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, the 2023 farm bill — if all current programs and formulas remain as they are in the current farm bill, created in 2018 — will have a price tag of $1.5 trillion.
The big deal
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the City of Dubuque was the poster child for a global economic crash known as the farm crisis, related to a bursting U.S. agricultural boom.
In “Iowa Agriculture: A History of Farming, Family and Food,” author Darcy Dougherty Maulsby writes that the farm crisis was due to the agricultural industry’s rampant growth after consolidation by large corporations, marked by excess production, farm consolidation and the rural population moving to cities. Banks approved aggressive loans to farmers for operation expansions. Foreign exports found markets for some of the increasing production until global strife halted them. All the while, land prices were skyrocketing, until they reached a breaking point and crashed.
Just in Iowa, 20,000 family farms failed.
Dubuque saw unemployment peak at 23% and had 10% housing vacancy. At the time, the two major local employers were tied to the agricultural industry — John Deere Dubuque Works and Dubuque Packing Co.
It was the 1981 farm bill that first tried to rectify impacts and source problems of the crisis, through a national farm foreclosure moratorium and rewarding production limits with federal subsidies.
About every five years, since the first one in 1933, Congress has created a farm bill to react to the problems of its day.
The tri-state-area’s economy is more diverse today than before the farm crisis, but agriculture is still a chief driver.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s most recent Census of Agriculture, there were 10,121 farming operations in 2017 covering 2.6 million acres in seven local counties: Clayton, Delaware, Dubuque and Jackson counties in Iowa; Jo Daviess County, Ill.; and Grant and Lafayette counties in Wisconsin.
In that year, those operations received $113.2 million in payments for conservation practices, another $15 million for commodity payments, $29.2 million in federal loans and another $10.8 million in federally backed crop insurance. All of those programs are authorized in the farm bill.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent one-year estimates, for 2022, 6,956 people work directly in the agriculture, forestry and fishing industries in the area. Another 20,915 work in manufacturing and 4,969 work in transportation and storage, both of which are significantly linked to ag. Dubuque’s finance and insurance employers also manage farm loans and crop insurance.
The biggest portion of the farm bill, though, goes not to farm programs but directly to support the purchase of food for families through SNAP, which accounts for 82% of the funding, according to Congressional Budget Office.
The farm bill includes 12 areas, ranging from commodity supports and nutrition, to global trade and job training.
This year’s farm bill is first the responsibility of the agriculture committees in each chamber of Congress.
The Senate Agriculture Committee started quickly and held five hearings featuring USDA officials talking about various aspects of farm bill programs. The committee includes U.S. Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
The House of Representatives Agriculture Committee recently held its first hearing. That panel includes U.S. Rep. Derrick Van Orden, R-Wis.
Grassley, who owns his family farm in New Hartford, has served on that Senate committee since joining the Senate in 1981. That means this year’s farm bill is his ninth as a senator. But counting his three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, Grassley will have helped craft 10 farm bills.
“Over the 40 years, the biggest change is crop insurance,” he said in an interview. “Prior to crop insurance, farmers had to rely on disaster payments from the federal government, which had uncertain things about them.”
During a hearing on Feb. 9, he reiterated his support for insurance and for limiting payments to reduce how much federal funding benefits the biggest agricultural producers. During a Feb. 16 hearing on SNAP, he voiced concern over a projected increase to spending.
In the same hearings, Ernst supported bolstering healthy foods and fluid milk incentives to reverse negative health trends. She also cautiously supported environmental standards in place for recipients of crop insurance.
“They have to protect our wetlands and soil health,” she said. “These are all important and should be maintained but not augmented. It’s critical that we maintain that safety net that is affordable.”
Durbin is typically occupied at the same time as the Agriculture Committee holds it hearings, as he also is the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, but he argued for returned access to an Illinois program that allowed residents of retirement communities to pool SNAP benefits for community meals — which the USDA called foul on after it operated for 20 years.
While U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson, R-Iowa, does not serve on the Agriculture Committee, she does serve on the Agriculture Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. That means that once the Agriculture Committee drafts a bill, the programs’ funding will come to her.
Hinson recently held a roundtable discussion of women in agriculture at Northeast Iowa Community College’s Manchester Center.
After that event, she told the Telegraph Herald that she would support improving the food system as an appropriator and push back against what she viewed as government overreaches.
“For me, it is as if there is an inherent national interest in protecting our food supply and making it accessible,” she said of budgeting. “But what has driven a lot of people out of business is they get tired of dealing with all the regulation or don’t try to take advantage of a program because of all the barriers that exist.”
There are 52 members of the House Agriculture Committee. There are 23 members of the Senate Agriculture Committee. The other members hail from as far away as Utah and Maine, Idaho and Florida.
SNAP provides funding assistance to purchase food for households who meet fixed criteria.
Participants must have gross monthly incomes of 130% of the federal poverty line — around $2,495 — or lower, have net incomes at the poverty line — around $1,920 monthly for a family of three — or lower, and have assets worth $4,250 or less. Recipients usually also must work 20 hours per week or participate in job training to qualify, although that requirement was halted during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the provision ending in May.
The program has 41 million participants.
“It reduces poverty and food hardship,” said Deputy Undersecretary Stacy Dean, of USDA’s Food Nutrition and Consumer Services division, during a recent Senate Agriculture Committee meeting. “By infusing food dollars into the economy, SNAP also benefits retailers, grocery store employees, truck drivers, food manufacturers and — of course — the hard-working farmers we need to grow and produce our food.”
In December, 7,455 people in Dubuque County, 1,616 in Jackson County, 954 in Clayton County and 859 people in Delaware County received SNAP funding, according to the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services.
Illinois and Wisconsin report their monthly SNAP participation by congressional district, but each of the three districts representing the tri-state area had thousands of participants in December.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, current nutrition programs and qualifications in the farm bill would require $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years. That number has upset many Republican lawmakers, who blame the 21% increase in recent years on a regulatory change by the USDA, as called for in the 2018 farm bill to reassess how much SNAP paid for specific foods.
“Our people’s confidence in SNAP is undermined when this administration usurps Congress’ power of the purse and unilaterally increases the program’s cost by hundreds of billions of dollars without any concern to the fiscal impact or any impact on inflation,” Grassley said during the recent hearing.
Dean said the change was the first program update since 1975 and only provided a small increase to each participating family. She acknowledged that it is a significant increase in the aggregate.
“Results provided modest, but meaningful — $2 per day — increases,” she said.
U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said the USDA’s assessment found that SNAP levels had been too low to meet recipients nutritional needs for many years.
Grassley said in an interview that he would like to see nutrition separated from the rest of the farm bill, because of misinformation about lopsided federal subsidies of agriculture, when a majority of the funding subsidizes nutrition. Some conservative members of the House majority have proposed similar legislation.
Grassley said in the interview that doing so is “politically unrealistic.”
At Hinson’s roundtable, Allison Ryan, of Ryan, said more rural people could use SNAP but asset limits prevent them.
“Like where I live, yes, we’re a two-car household because we have to be, being rural, to get to work,” she said of the asset limits. “So we don’t qualify.”
Sheila Merfeld, owner of Dobie’s, a longtime keystone of Dubuque Farmers Market, said she has learned how critical SNAP is after selling participants their first organic and local vegetables.
“We need it more than ever now because low-income people have been getting access to the lowest-quality foods,” she said.
Republican leaders in the new House majority have said there is no additional money to spend on the farm bill. But the House Agriculture Committee has only begun to shape its proposals.
Some lawmakers, upset that people have been able to stay on SNAP without working in recent years, say Congress needs to increase work requirements.
Josh Jasper, executive director of Resources Unite in Dubuque, agreed that some SNAP reforms were needed, but that kicking more people off the benefit was not the right path.
“The work needed to be done is helping people get job ready, which requires long-term, ongoing assistance,” he said. “Without that, the work requirement simply becomes a way to remove food benefits from people.”
Kramer told the TH that the farming community especially needs support in this farm bill, coming off of the price disruptions, supply-chain problems and even illness of the first half of the pandemic, and the inflation and workforce shortage that followed.
“It’s all we can do out here to keep our heads above water,” he said.
That is why Grassley named continuing and strengthening, if possible, the crop insurance program as his top priority this year.
Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., also listed insurance among her top priorities. That includes its continued expansion to include more producers of fruits and vegetables, which the bill typically calls “specialty crops” and provides less funding than it does for commodity crops such as corn and soybeans.
A constant drumbeat in the discussion — in Congress and at the recent event in Manchester — has been a lack of access to farmland because of consolidation and the skyrocketing land prices that followed.
Grassley prescribed payment limits per producer to begin to address the problem — a strategy proven in past farm bills but not recent iterations.
“As it stands, the largest 10% of farmers receive nearly 70% of the subsidies from (commodity payment) programs,” he said. “Because of this, large farmers get higher payments and drive land prices up. This is one of the many reasons it’s hard for younger farmers to get started.”
Jess Carryer recently quit her job to launch Dropseed Farm, a small-scale, organic vegetable farm. She had worked on what she called mid-to-large organic farms in Minnesota and Maine and began looking for a small plot of land of her own. She stopped that search shortly after it started because of “out-of-control” prices.
Instead, Carryer found a home for Dropseed at the Sinsinawa Mound collaborative farm in Wisconsin, as others have before her.
“I looked around for some half-acre areas,” she said. “But I knew I could rent a small parcel and have an equipment-share agreement (at Sinsinawa).”
Farm bill programs to help young and beginning farmers receive less funding than programs for existing operations and producers.
Area growers have expressed interest in transitioning to more table foods, because of increasing droughts in Arizona and California — which produce the most fruits and vegetables. The current farm bill lacks incentives for that.
“I don’t think you could make a living doing it,” Kramer said.
Commodity payments are paid to farmers based on the crops they produce, per the farm bill. Commodity payments are projected at $61.8 billion in the 2023 bill, about 4.1% of the total legislation. Of the total commodity pie, 48% is for corn, 12% is for soybeans, 11% is for wheat, 8% is for rice and 7% is for upland cotton. Fruits, vegetables and oilseeds combined receive about 2% of commodity payments.
The farm bill has a section for horticulture, which receives less than 1% of spending.
Another section for livestock and poultry also makes up less than 1% of spending.
Climate and conservation
Conservation funding has been part of the farm bill’s fabric since the safety net was first woven in response to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
The 2014 and 2018 farm bills increased conservation spending for climate change and the increasing natural disasters related to it.
According to the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, each 1% of organic matter in soil — regenerated through no-till and cover crops — can store an additional 25,000 gallons of water and reduce the need for about $465 in applied nutrients per acre and infiltrates many times the amount of stormwater per hour compared to conventional tillage.
Conventional farming practices also release an average of 1,000 pounds of carbon per acre per year. Regenerative practices sequester the majority of that carbon in the soil.
The Dubuque County Watersheds group has increased conservation practices on 8,332 additional acres since beginning its suite of programs in 2021 — reducing 56,649 pounds of nitrogen and 4,355 pounds of phosphorous runoff into surface water, and sequestering 4,180 tons of carbon.
Area farmers have used farm bill conservation programs. As of the Census of Agriculture, 587,462 acres were not tilled and 623,940 more used some form of conservation tillage plan, while 284,071 acres used conventional tillage. Another 17,291 acres were in permanent conservation easements. Cover crops were used on 107,722 acres.
“On cover crops and things like that, we have more and more people getting in there,” said Kramer, of Dubuque County farmers.
There is some local concern about too much focus on conservation in the farm bill.
“We need to make sure these are based in science and reasonable for farmers,” said Delaware County Farm Bureau President Denise Bishop at Hinson’s roundtable.
Per the Congressional Budget Office’s baselines for the 2023 farm bill, existing conservation programs would cost $57.5 billion, or 3.8% of the total, based on current formulas.
But the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 included $369 billion in climate and clean energy investments — 11% of which went to the USDA. Of that, $40 billion was allocated to existing farm bill programs. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack spent $3 billion of that in 2022.
Potentially, there is more to be spent on those programs. That could help, since the USDA reports many more applications for conservation programs than there is funding to fulfill them.
“There is almost always more interest than capacity,” said Schmechel, Dubuque County Watersheds director.
Grassley expressed agitation at the IRA’s earmarking those funds for what it called “climate-friendly agriculture.”
House Republicans have pitched replacing some of the farm bill’s usual conservation spending with the IRA money, rather than adding it, in an attempt to cut spending.
Cultivating the farm bill
The 2018 farm bill’s programs sunset in September, so Congress has a great deal of work to do in the next few months.
The 2018 farm bill didn’t pass until December of that year, even with unified control under Republicans. The 2023 farm bill faces a split and very different Congress — Republicans with a small majority in the House, Democrats with an even smaller majority in the Senate and a Democrat in the White House.