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Three Big Obstacles in Developing the 2023 Farm Bill

The upcoming farm bill will be the 19th in U.S. history. Randy Russell of the Russell Group spoke during the National Association of Farm Broadcasting’s Washington Watch. The Russell Group is one of the top government relations firms focusing on food and agriculture public policy. Russell has watched nine farm bills developed during his career and says three factors drive the outcome of the legislation.

“One of the things I’ve found from those nine farm bills is that there are three factors that drive the outcome of farm bills. It is the farm economic environment at the time the farm bill is written. It is the budget environment at the time the bill is written, and what’s the political situation?”

While overall farm income is projected to drop this year, the financial picture in ag is still pretty solid.

“In 2022, we had a net cash income of $199 billion. I mean, it was a record level. This year at the Outlook Conference, Seth Meyer and others at USDA predicted it would be about $150 billion for net cash income. While down considerably, 17 percent from the year before, still well above what we would say over the last 20 or 21 years. The debt-to-asset ratio for agriculture is somewhere in the neighborhood of 13 percent. When I was Chief of Staff at USDA for Secretary Block back in the mid-80s, the debt-to-asset ratio was 22 percent. Remember back then, farm equity values dropped by a third. The Farm Credit System needed to bail out, and it was a very difficult time. So that balance sheet for ag is much better, obviously, than historical averages.”

He says the political environment for writing a new farm bill has never been this challenging.

“The most evenly-divided Congress in the history of this country. Passing a Mother’s Day resolution would be difficult. Trying to pass a farm bill in this environment is going to be very difficult. The task is pretty daunting. Why do I say that? I say that because you look at the 54 members of the House Agriculture Committee, and 16 of them voted on the 2018 Farm Bill. Sixteen out of 54. The education job for a chair and ranking member to try to get a farm bill through in this environment is daunting. Over in the Senate, it’s a little bit better numbers in terms of member continuity. Sixteen of the 23 voted on the 2018 Farm Bill but still quite a few new members and new staff.”

The budget situation is equally as daunting because costs have jumped significantly since the last farm bill.

“You take the 2018 Farm Bill, and you take the ten-year cost for the 2018 Farm Bill, the CBO, the unbiased congressional scorecard, so to speak, for budgeting is $867 billion. Seventy-six percent of the cost of that is nutrition programs, primarily SNAP. Now, the 2023 Farm Bill extended for 10 years, and that cost goes from $867 billion to $1.5 trillion. Even in Washington, that is a big number. One-and-a-half trillion dollars and 82 percent of that is in SNAP. If the FDA were going to investigate the term farm bill, it would find it was in violation, saying it is untruthful and very misleading.”

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