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Congress will miss its September deadline for the farm bill. What does it matter?

A tractor pulls a grain hopper on Monday, Oct. 24, 2022, on former democratic state senator Wes Shoemeyer’s farm in rural northeast Missouri.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
The leaders of both congressional agriculture committees say federal lawmakers will move back farm bill negotiations to December. The current law expires Saturday, but experts say there should be little peril despite the blown deadline.

Already facing a likely government shutdown, Congress is missing another big deadline — the farm bill.

The massive legislation passed roughly every five years includes funding for food assistance, commodity support, crop insurance and conservation programs.

As Congress plows past the Saturday deadline, agricultural policy experts and lawmakers say there shouldn’t be much harm to critical programs, at least before the end of the year.

“It’s not the end of the world,” said Brad Lubben, an extension policy specialist with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “But you can see it from there.”

Even without an immediate extension of the farm bill after Saturday, several programs are permanently authorized and will remain funded, including crop insurance.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides support to low-income families, is reauthorized each year through appropriations. That could be potentially a challenge for lawmakers this week as they deal with an imminent shutdown.

The chairs of both the Senate and House Agriculture Committees acknowledged last week that December will be the new target for passing the omnibus legislation that dictates agricultural, food and conservation spending in the U.S.

Missing the September deadline for the farm bill has become common practice for lawmakers in Washington, D.C. Congress last passed the omnibus legislation on time in 2002.

Even though missing the September deadline has become common, missing the December deadline could be more costly.

“That's really the imminent deadline,” Lubben said.

Congressman Mark Alford, R-Cass County, said he supports an effort to compensate people in the St. Louis area who became sick due to radioactive waste exposure.
U.S. Rep. Mark Alford's Office
U.S. Rep. Mark Alford, a Missouri Republican who serves on the House Agriculture Committee

Rep. Mark Alford, R-Raymore, said he expects Congress to pass a short-term extension possibly to the end of the year. He said that will give lawmakers time to write and debate the legislation.

“We have a lot of farmers and producers depending on the insurance and the safety net programs to continue operation,” said Alford, a member of the House Agriculture Committee.

Rep. Nikki Budzsinski, D-Springfield, also sits on the House Agriculture Committee. She argues that Congress shouldn’t need an extension. Lawmakers’ fight over funding the federal government has distracted from finishing the farm bill, she said.

“I'm very concerned that all of the energy that should be devoted toward getting a farm bill done — to support our farmers, to support our agricultural economy — the oxygen is being sucked out of the room because Republican leadership can't make a deal to keep our government open,” Budzinski said.

This story is part of Harvest Public Media's ongoing coverage of the 2023 Farm Bill.
This story is part of Harvest Public Media's ongoing coverage of the 2023 Farm Bill.

What happens after December?

Maybe the biggest and most immediate impact if lawmakers miss the December deadline will be noticed by milk consumers and producers in what experts call the “dairy cliff.”

Without a new farm bill, policy would revert back to the language of the farm bills in the 1938 and 1949 bills. Those were passed without an expiration date and are referred to as “permanent law” by policy experts.

That permanent law would more than double the cost of milk. Currently, the price of milk stands at $19.30 per 100 pounds. Under the old farm bill, the cost would skyrocket to $50.70, according to a Congressional Research Service report that details the farm bill’s expiration.

“We would go from not spending anything at all to suddenly the rules of the old farm bills would cause a tremendous increase in spending for agriculture, at least from the commodity side,” said Chad Hart, an Iowa State University professor of agricultural economics.

Like dairy, wheat, cotton, rice and corn would also increase in price but by less drastic margins. The federal government would be stuck footing the bill. Consumers would be left paying more too.

Those 20th century farm bills would also not support crops like soybeans, peanuts or sugar.

In 2014, lawmakers allowed permanent legislation to go into place for the first time — after failing to sign legislation until early February. At that point, however, the U.S. Department of Agriculture had not drawn up all the details to implement the permanent law.

Kernels of wheat funnel into Top AG Grain Co-Op’s silo on Tuesday, June 27, 2023, in Okawville, Ill.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Permanent law would increase the price for grains like wheat, rice and corn, but by less drastic margins than milk, according to the Congressional Research Service.

A shutdown complicates the farm bill

Getting a farm bill done with a government shutdown looming will be nearly impossible, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said this week.

“We’ll do everything we can to make sure this thing gets passed as quickly as it can,” Vilsack said. “But it’s pretty tough to do if there’s a shutdown. You can’t do it.”

When lawmakers finally get to the debate over the farm bill, some members of the Republican Party may center their attention on SNAP. As part of negotiations over the debt ceiling in May, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and President Joe Biden reached an agreement to raise work requirements for eligible recipients.

“They're bringing up work requirements, as if this conversation hasn't already been had and agreed to in a bipartisan way,” Budzinski said.

U.S. Rep. Nikki Budzinski (IL-13), D-Springfield, on Monday, April 10, 2023, at St. Louis Public Radio’s headquarters in Grand Center,
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
U.S. Rep. Nikki Budzinski, D-Illinois, serves on the House Agriculture Committee.

Rep. Mary Miller, R-Oakland, a member of the House Agriculture Committee and the Freedom Caucus, has previously advocated for raising the threshold for SNAP work and age requirements.

“We’re on the verge of not being able to call it ‘the farm bill’ (because) 85% of the farm bill money is going to SNAP payments and food production,” she told farmers earlier this fall. “The producers are being left out, and we need to fight back and speak up about that.”

Hart of Iowa State said a government shutdown could also force agricultural markets to fly blind without USDA reports on commodity prices like corn, soybeans and beef — and eventually push prices down.

That’s happened to agriculture markets before during shutdowns in 2013, 2018 and 2019.

Now, Hart said, all farmers, ranchers and the American public can do is wait to see how agriculture will weather a shutdown and what will become of the farm bill.

“Something will be done. I have no doubt about that,” Hart said. “The question is what.”

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.

Will Bauer is the Metro East reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.