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The farm bill stalled in Congress last year, leaving lawmakers to deal with it in an election year

An aerial view of the Recker farm located near Arlington in Fayette County, Iowa, established by Mark Recker’s father in 1955.
Mark Recker
An aerial view of the Recker farm located near Arlington in Fayette County, Iowa, established by Mark Recker’s father in 1955.

Congress kicked the can down the road by failing to negotiate a new farm bill last year. The bill has been extended through the end of September, but experts say it won't be easy for lawmakers to approve a new plan.

During his 30 years of farming, Mark Recker has seen a lot of farm bills make their way through Congress, as the legislation comes up for renewal every five years.

"And it seems like as the years go by, farm bills get harder and harder to pass," Recker said.

Getting a farm bill approved this time could turn into an even taller order.

Congress chose to extend the 2018 Farm Bill last year instead of developing a new plan, and President Biden signed an extension that runs through September. Ag experts worry that it will be tough for lawmakers to reach an agreement on a package that's expected to cost more than $1 trillion.

"In this presidential election year, national politics is going to get in the way," said Brent Johnson, president of Iowa Farm Bureau. "And we really don't need this farm bill to be extended into the new administration. That's going to be a really long time."

He estimates the farm bill will cost more than $1.3 trillion over five years. He said farmers in the Midwest need a finished package that helps mitigate risk, keep producers in business, and care for the environment.

Johnson, who also serves on the board of directors for the American Farm Bureau Federation, has lobbied agricultural committee members to fast-track the farm bill.

"I've been working a lot with Senators John Boozman, Debbie Stabenow, and Representative G.T. Thompson. We're just trying to make sure our priorities are heard," Johnson said. "It's just a matter of getting through the politics of Washington."

President of the Iowa Farm Bureau Brent Johnson poses in front of his barn on his farm near Manson in Calhoun County, Iowa.
Iowa Farm Bureau
President of the Iowa Farm Bureau Brent Johnson, poses in front of his barn on his farm near Manson in Calhoun County, Iowa.

Top concerns for Johnson and other agricultural leaders focus on making sure programs aimed at producers are fully funded. The farm bill includes programs for commodity price support, crop insurance, trade and conservation initiatives.

Yet the largest share of the farm bill’s funding, more than 80%, goes toward food programs through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

"I've had way too many conversations with food banks and some of those organizations that are really being overrun with demand," Johnson said. "So, there is a real need after the COVID-era for food stability."

He’s pushing for lawmakers to finish the legislation and get it to the president's desk during the first quarter of the year. Yet it’s likely it will take lawmakers longer to finalize a plan, according to Chad Hart, an agriculture economist with Iowa State University.

"If you look back at the last three or four times we've renewed the farm bill, it tends to be delayed. It tends to be something if you will get kicked down the road for a while before Congress gets its act together and finally gives us the next farm bill," Hart said.

He predicts Congress will likely hold steady on what's contained in the farm bill, even if they want to avoid additional burden on the budget.

"That's basically what a one-year extension did anyway," Hart said. "It's not seen as effective of a safety net as it was 20 years ago. At the same time, I think farmers have gotten used to delays and interruptions with the farm bill," Hart said.

Recker, who grows corn and soybeans in northeast Iowa, doesn’t expect a solution anytime soon.

"That's due to a lack of bi-partisanship and the higher cost of the plan — there's a lot of issues going on," Recker added. "Congress passed 27 bills last year. So, it's not known for doing a lot. So, it's not surprising that this farm bill didn't get done."

Still, he’s hoping there will be more funding for conservation, something he practices in his fields through less tilling and growing cover crops.

"I think that farmers have evolved to the point where there's much more focus on climate change and the need to engage farmers and give them the incentive and help them with the cost associated with doing new things," he said.

Johnson, the president of the Iowa Farm Bureau, plans to continue working in a space where production and policy meet. For him, it’s personal as he tends to land first owned by his great-great-grandfather in 1893.

“My son is generation number six. And number seven is on the ground if they choose to.”

He said the farm bill provides the foundation to keep his family business and others across the country growing and thriving.

“There’s a lot of Washington that we need to punch through in order to get this farm bill across the line," Johnson said. "And, you know, I think we’ll get there.”

Sheila Brummeris the western Iowa reporter for Iowa Public Radio. This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.

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