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Delayed passage of farm bill stirs uncertainty for Texas agriculture


Delayed passage of farm bill stirs uncertainty for Texas agriculture

Sep 27, 2023 | 6:00 am ET
By Grace Yarrow
Delayed passage of farm bill stirs uncertainty for Texas agriculture
Farmworkers work fields of dead vegetables at Johnson’s Backyard Garden, east of Austin, on Feb. 22, 2021. The organic farm experienced a near-total loss of their crops after a winter storm ravaged Texas. (Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune)

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WASHINGTON — Key federal legislation to support farmers and consumers could get delayed due to the looming government shutdown, causing uncertainty for agriculture and nutrition programs in Texas.

The must-pass package of legislation known as the farm bill, which is reauthorized every five years, is critical to funding a wide range of programs that include providing crop insurance and loans to farmers and food access to low-income families.

Traditionally a testament to bipartisanship in Congress, meeting the Sept. 30 deadline to pass the bill is seemingly impossible as lawmakers are preoccupied with averting a government shutdown. In lieu of passing a new version of the farm bill, Congress is expected to extend the deadline, keeping in place the current version of the law for as long as a few weeks to several months.

But that temporary fix delays critical updates for the agriculture industry.

“What the farm bill is trying to do is to provide a sense of security to our farmers in an increasingly uncertain space, with rising temperatures, more droughts,” said Chloe Kessock, spokesperson for Rep. Jasmine Crockett, D-Dallas, who serves on the House Agriculture Committee. “The farm bill is meant to kind of make up for that lack of security, but when we have a pending possible shutdown, then you also have insecurity in that space. So where are farmers supposed to get that source of stability?”

Texas has by far the most acres of farmland in the country. But policies covered in the farm bill have broad implications beyond agriculture. Nutrition programs have to be reauthorized under the law, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which helped one in nine Texans in 2022 pay for groceries, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Much has changed since the most recent farm bill was passed in 2018 — including the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia-Ukraine conflict and the changing economy, which have raised the costs associated with farming. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are pushing to update policies within the farm bill in response.

This year, a top priority for some lawmakers is to include more insurance and support for farmers.

Patrick Creamer, GOP spokesperson for the Senate Agriculture Committee said that bolstering that so-called “farm safety net” was the top request of producers throughout a listening tour across the country by Sen. John Boozman, R-Arkansas, including an August stop in Amarillo with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

The bipartisan work that has historically gone into the farm bill has been complicated with heightened Congressional disagreements across party lines over federal spending and SNAP policy. This year wouldn’t be the first time legislators couldn’t decide on a farm bill. The 2018 bill was delayed past its deadline and the 2014 version took years of haggling before passage.

After meeting with leaders from agriculture committees and the Texas Congressional delegation, Laramie Adams, national legislative director for the Texas Farm Bureau said he’s hopeful that a farm bill will be secured by the end of 2023.

“In a perfect world, we get a farm bill this year. If we don't though, let's extend it. And let's not pass a farm bill just to say we passed a farm bill,” Adams said. “We want to make sure that the farm bill is meaningful.”

Texas farmers and ranchers have watched the cost of equipment and fuel rise while market prices for products are stagnant, Adams said.

“As you look at that and inflation and adjusting for inflation, from our perspective, we need to look at strengthening crop insurance,” Adams said. “And that is not an easy task.”

Adams added that he and other advocates will use the extended time to continue pushing Congress to include stronger crop insurance. Crop insurance programs already exist under federal law, so a farm bill extension would simply postpone added support.

Farmers in the Lone Star State face unique challenges outside of climate change and inflation.

Rep. Monica De La Cruz, R-Edinburg, has introduced legislation to tackle those issues after talking to farmers in her district. De La Cruz serves on the House Agriculture Committee and is hoping to weave legislation to address an overpopulation of feral pigs and cattle fever ticks into the new farm bill.

“While there's still much work to be done, I am enthusiastic about the potential benefits a new farm bill could bring to our community,” De La Cruz said in an email. “Rest assured, the farmers and ranchers of South Texas can count on me to always have their backs."

Details of how long an extension would be and when Texans would feel the impact of not having a farm bill are unclear.

SNAP benefits, for example, won’t be interrupted under a government shutdown, according to Brandon Bradley, another legislative assistant for Crockett.

SNAP benefits were already cut earlier this year in an agreement between Congress and the White House to raise the federal debt limit.

“It should never have been part of that debate,” said Celia Cole, CEO of Feeding Texas.

Advocates from Feeding Texas originally pushed for more investment in nutrition programs like SNAP. They’re still pushing for that funding, but are now just hoping for no more cuts in the new farm bill.

Disclosure: Feeding Texas and Texas Farm Bureau have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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