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Congress gears up for another farm bill. Here's what's on the menu

Deidra Bollinger of Lancaster County shaves Rozabel red and white dairy cow at the annual Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg, Pa., Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023.
Matt Rourke
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AP
Deidra Bollinger of Lancaster County shaves Rozabel red and white dairy cow at the annual Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg, Pa., Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023.

Updated February 2, 2023 at 9:53 AM ET

Lawmakers drank thick milkshakes brought to them by the Pennsylvania Dairymen's Association as they listened to farmers, ranchers and community leaders from around the state talk about their needs and wants for the 2023 farm bill.

The Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg served as the perfect curtain opener for House Agriculture Committee Chair GT Thompson to begin discussions on the measure that funds many parts of the American food supply chain and rural development.

"We're working on crunch time here," Thompson said to open the listening session on Jan. 13. "This is an industry that's important, not just to those of us who live in rural America. This is probably the most important industry from the standpoint it touches the lives of every American family more times a day than any other industry."

The once-every-five-year piece of legislation is a hodgepodge of policies. The bill is made up of multiple titles — 12 to be exact — that blended together make up a bill known as the biggest safety net for American farmers.

However, a very short timeline and infighting among House Republicans are raising questions over the feasibility of passing a large measure in time.

Meanwhile, mayors, crop advocacy groups, labor advocates, utility companies and more are already vying for their piece of the farm bill pie ahead of the September expiration date for the 2018 bill.

One such group is the Center for Employment Opportunities. Based out of Harrisburg, CEO is the largest nonprofit organization providing pay for training to formerly incarcerated individuals across 12 states. The organization serves about 8,000 people annually.

Kia Hansard, program director at CEO, came to the listening session hoping lawmakers take the opportunity to see that the bill expands beyond animals and crops.

The biggest portion of the bill is the nutrition title. It makes up about 80% of the bill's spending and helps to manage nutrition assistance programs, such as food stamps. Although nutrition programs are funded through regular budget bills, the farm bill helps make the rules for how the programs will work and who qualifies.

Hansard argued the 2023 farm bill should increase investment in what's called "SNAP Employment and Training." The program allows SNAP recipients to get employment training, provides transportation, childcare and clothing allowances as participants find employment.

Hansard also asked lawmakers to disregard SNAP Employment and Training wages from SNAP eligibility.

Currently, Hansard said, 'income' received from the Employment and Training program for learning and training is being counted as income to calculate SNAP eligibility.

"Essentially significantly reducing their benefits or kicking individuals off SNAP because of receiving income from the SNAP E&T program itself," Hansard said in her testimony to lawmakers. "Participants are then faced with having to choose between obtaining the training and skills needed to ensure their long-term success or keeping the security of simply being able to feed themselves in the short term."

But there is more to the mix of funding than nutrition.

"It's a nice name: the Farm Bill. And there are clearly programs that benefit farmers, but you don't have to be a farmer to be interested in the farm bill," said Dennis Nuxoll, vice president of government affairs at Western Growers, a farmer advocacy group. "You can live in a rural community and be a librarian. And in the farm bill, there are programs that your small town accesses to build the library that you work in and some of the infrastructure of your town. You're a librarian, you don't actually grow anything."

Key points of negotiation:

Although there are 12 titles to the farm bill here are the portions most likely to get attention beyond nutrition:

Crop insurance: Elizabeth Hinkel, president of the Pennsylvania Corn Growers, testified during the farm show listening session about the need to make crop insurance more accessible. About 45% of corn acres in the state are not insured, so farmers are on the hook for costs if their crops fail due to climate or other disasters.

A portion of crop insurance is funded by the farm bill, Hinkle told NPR. She hopes lawmakers can make it more affordable for farmers to enroll in the programs.

Rural development: The Department of Agriculture is the only federal agency with the explicit mandate of deploying programs to help the development of rural areas. This includes grants to build hospitals, schools, traditional infrastructure and utilities services.

Research: The farm bill can allocate dollars to fund research at colleges, universities and public and private institutions. This can include research into how to best grow food, make crops more resistant to droughts and heat, and create artificial intelligence machines to work on the crops.

Conservation: The conservation title received a significant boost from recent Congressional efforts to invest in climate-change mitigating efforts. Lawmakers, however, have long pushed to make sure programs are voluntary and not mandatory for producers. Still, many say the programs are oversubscribed with more demand to be a part of them than there are incentives to give.

People view antique tractors at the annual Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg, Pa., Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023.
Matt Rourke / AP
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AP
People view antique tractors at the annual Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg, Pa., on Jan. 11.

Senate leaders have their own priorities ready

Lawmakers and stakeholders are coming in with their own wishlists.

House ranking member David Scott sent out his priorities in January to include expanding rural broadband, adding $100 million in funding to the 1890 Land Grant African American College and Universities Student Scholarship Program and an increase in help for farmers looking to get involved in USDA conservation programs.

Senate Chair Debbie Stabenow led the negotiations on the 2014 and 2018 farm bills. Stabenow announced at the start of this year that she would not be seeking reelection during the 2024 election cycle, making this farm bill her last. And she has climate on her mind.

"One of the biggest risks for [farmers] right now relates to the climate crisis," Stabenow said. "It's the largest conservation investment in preserving land and water that we do as a country. So it's very important to our quality of life and hopefully we'll be able to get the bipartisan support we need to get it done."

Both Stabenow and ranking member John Boozman want to look at how disaster relief programs are structured for producers hardest hit by natural disasters.

Boozman notes that Congress has been able to appropriate disaster relief funding as needed, but he says the trouble in the spending is that it is sporadic.

"It's something that Congress has to go in and fight for the dollars for the particular region that has been affected," Boozman said. "The other problem that we've got is once Congress goes through all the mechanisms that they have to to get the money allocated, that takes a long time. Then the program has to be set up. Once you've had a disaster in your area, it might be two years before you get compensation"

He also said he is looking for further investment in programs that are providing broadband to rural areas and reviewing nutrition spending.

Money, money, money

The topic of funding for the bill looms large. Agriculture, climate and development groups are calling for increased dollars for their respective programs. When asked where he was expected to find the money for it, Thompson said he had "no idea."

But he credited the American Rescue Plan, the 2020-era pandemic relief bill, and the Democrats' reconciliation package for providing pots of money that past farm bills didn't have as a resource.

Stabenow, who championed the portions of the reconciliation package that added a historic $20 billion to voluntary conservation programs, agrees that this improves the baseline of money lawmakers have to work with.

Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., joined by fellow House Republicans speaks at a press conference to discuss a Republican agriculture plan, at the U.S. Capitol on June 15, 2022 in Washington, D.C. The group is calling for the Biden administration to relax regulations and policies to help increase domestic food production.
Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., joined by fellow House Republicans speaks at a press conference to discuss a Republican agriculture plan, at the U.S. Capitol on June 15, 2022 in Washington, D.C. The group is calling for the Biden administration to relax regulations and policies to help increase domestic food production.

A deadline looming for a divided Congress

The House got off to a rocky start with 20 members of the Republican conference voting against electing Rep. Kevin McCarthy as speaker. Among those was Illinois Rep. Mary Miller, an agriculture committee member who was also present at the Pennsylvania event.

Thompson, however, is not worried. He argues that the political differences in farm bill talks are less about party lines and more about geographic and industry splits.

But there have already been signs of opposition. The conservative Republican Study Committee's proposed 2023 budget released at the end of last year proposes removing the nutrition title from the farm bill — a move that has already been debunked by Thompson and other Republicans. But the group has other suggestions too including phasing out the sugar program and federal dairy subsidy programs.

In 2018 the Freedom Caucus rejected the farm bill over immigration negotiations.

"There may be some times where there's been some partisan moves. But at the end of the day, when the final votes on the farm bill come, it's a bipartisan farm bill," Thompson said. "And my goal is to keep it that way from the very beginning."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: February 1, 2023 at 8:00 PM AKST
A previous version of this story incorrectly said the Center for Employment Opportunities serves 600,000 people annually. The group helps 8,000 individuals per year.
Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.