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Groups jostle for position during Farm Bill talks
Illinois Correspondent

WASHINGTON, D.C. — With political rancor at fever pitch and House leadership in disarray, Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack is calling for an extension of the 2018 Farm Bill. Speaking in Lime Springs, Iowa on October 10, Vilsack criticized efforts in Congress to cut USDA’s budget. The ag secretary said he expects lawmakers will be forced to pass an extension of the current farm bill or face the effects of potential “havoc” for farmers.
An extension of the farm bill would mean many USDA offices and programs would continue to operate past December 31. It would also give commodity, conservation, energy and other special interest groups more time to state their case for inclusion of key policies and programs they are promoting.
“We’re more certain than ever that our voice will be heard and a farm bill will pass, even if it’s a little late,” said Andrew Larson, director of government relations and strategy for the Illinois Soybean Association (ISA), in a recent letter to soybean producers. “This slower pace requires legislative plays that will make the passage of a farm bill possible.”
In a Modern Farmer poll of more than two dozen state departments of agriculture, grower associations, industry groups and unions to see what each wanted from the next farm bill, responses included more accessibility to crop insurance, prioritizing climate incentives, increasing funding for key USDA farm conservation programs, revisiting federal hemp constraints, and securing the food system by addressing the imbalance between large national producers and smaller, local retailers. 
U.S. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), a member of the House Committee on Agriculture, noted that from partisan disagreements to climate denialism to the powerful agribusiness lobby, there are major challenges to overcome in order to overhaul the nation’s food system. However, the 2023 Farm Bill provides a significant opportunity for Congress to incentivize America’s agricultural sector to help in the fight against climate change, she said. 
According to Pingree, the farm bill should work to better support local meat processing infrastructure, reduce food waste, expand access to local foods and provide more people with access to nutritious food choices. 
Pingree also strongly supports government programs that encourage producers to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040. She is working to integrate her Agriculture Resilience Act (HR 1840), which would protect existing farmland, support pasture-based livestock systems, boost on-farm renewable energy, reduce food waste, increase research and improve soil health, into the 2023 Farm Bill.  
The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is joining Pingree in lobbying for inclusion of targeted investments and reforms that scale up climate-smart agriculture and forestry practices within the next farm bill.  “The farm bill should double down on the historic investments made in the 117th Congress and continue to center resilience as a key tool to promote a greener and more equitable future for farmers,” the NRDC urged in a whitepaper. 
These priorities include reducing barriers to organic agriculture, reducing food waste across the food system, incentivizing cover crops to boost healthy soils, extending and advancing support for healthy soil practices, expanding access to clean energy for farmers and rural businesses, providing support for effective rural sanitation and building regional food systems. NRDC also strongly advises Congress to resist calls to reduce USDA conservation funding programs and policies. 
“The 2023 Farm Bill should not cut investments that provide essential support for conservation practices, expand clean energy deployment, promote agroforestry, develop carbon management tools on farms, and bolster resources for underserved and at-risk farmers,” according to the NRDC.
Speaking as a leader in the precision agriculture industry, Orbia’s Mike Hemman also agreed that Congress needs to consider climate change’s impact on market fluctuations when considering the next farm bill. “We are facing a water crisis in the West. Despite the record rain and snowpack we received in early 2023, we run the risk of fallowing hundreds of thousands of acres of the most productive farmland in the world due to water scarcity,” said Hemman. “We must work together to limit groundwater depletion and better utilize agricultural water from the Colorado River. Congress has the opportunity to use this Farm Bill as a vehicle to promote programs and resources dedicated to keeping this agricultural land in production ensuring our food security.”
The Illinois Stewardship Alliance is one of the groups lobbying for inclusion of the Small Farm Conservation Act (HR 5354) in the farm bill. The Act aims to help small farms access federal conservation programs that are delivered through the Department of Agriculture’s Environmental Quality Incentives program. The program helps farmers improve soil health, water quality and air quality and protect against drought.
“The Small Farms Conservation Act will unlock conservation resources for small farmers to protect our natural resources, wildlife habitat, and build climate residency for the future,” according to the Alliance. 
The ISA’s Larson conceded that lawmakers may not be able to pass a new farm bill by 2024. Currently without a Speaker of the House, legislation  -- or even an extension -- cannot be voted on. “If an extension does not pass, then there is a chance Congress will revert to prior legislation, meaning some programs that weren’t previously included would cease to be funded. Under a worst-case scenario, lawmakers revert to a previous law. Due to mandatory and discretionary spending differentiations, crop insurance programs would continue while any new conservation contracts would remain unfunded,” Larson said.