Indiana Capital Chronicle: ‘A real game changer’: Indiana agriculture leaders focus on farm bill impact
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Indiana Capital Chronicle: ‘A real game changer’: Indiana agriculture leaders focus on farm bill impact

Indiana agriculture and environmental leaders are calling on members of the U.S. Congress to pass a new federal farm bill by the end of the year.

For Indiana — the seventh-largest exporter of agricultural products and the ninth-largest agricultural state in the U.S. — the legislation could have a wide-ranging impact. While many of the policies will affect the state’s 94,000 farmers, the farm bill could also affect the food supply, environmental protection efforts and food assistance for Indiana residents.

Congress typically reauthorizes the federal farm bill every five years. The current farm bill, which former President Donald Trump signed into law in December 2018, was set to expire in 2023 but has been extended through Sept. 30, 2024. The bill funds programs in 12 different areas, including crop insurance, nutrition and rural development.

However, party divisions have delayed the process of passing the bill, which has been delayed for almost a year.

Brantley Seifers, national affairs director for the Indiana Farm Bureau (INFB), said his organization is most eager to see the bill passed this year.

“We’ve put a lot of work into this farm bill. Our members have been advocating for this farm bill for almost two years,” Seifers told the Indiana Capital Chronicle. “It’s going to be very important to make sure it gets passed in this Congress and that we don’t stop at another extension.”

If Congress doesn’t pass a federal farm bill by September, some programs will either stop operating altogether or receive significantly less funding. But some programs supported by the bill — including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and federal crop insurance — could still be funded through federal grants.

Dan Boritt, executive director of the Indiana Wildlife Federation, also stressed the importance of passing the bill in 2024.

“If we can’t get a deal on the farm bill, it would be devastating for conservation in Indiana and, frankly, the country,” he said. “Farming is a really, really, really tough industry to be financially successful in, and those dollars allow (farmers) to take risks, do good things on the land that we all benefit from.”

Safety nets for Indiana farmers

The proposed House bill would, among other things, increase funding for specialty crop research, expand disaster relief eligibility, expand safety net programs for farmers and encourage farmers to sell their produce overseas.

Seifers said he thinks the 2018 Farm Bill is a strong piece of legislation that just needs some fine-tuning. He said many of the INFB’s priorities were included in the House version of the bill.

“We don’t expect massive changes to the farm bill, but we do expect updates to the bill,” Seifers said. “You look at some parts of the bill that haven’t been updated in many years, like the market access program and the foreign market development program, both of which are still stuck at 20-year levels.”

Part of the $1.5 trillion bill would support crop safety and insurance programs for farmers. Seifers said Indiana farmers could recover from floods and other disasters with that funding.

“If you go to a bank for a farm loan, their first question is, ‘What kind of crop insurance do you have?’” Seifers said. “Having that insurance and providing it to our members and having the flexibility to do it will allow them to continue to work.”

Steve Howell, senior director of industry affairs for the Indiana Soybean Alliance and the Indiana Corn Growers Association, supports these insurance programs. He said many Indiana soybean and corn farmers are anticipating lower prices for their crops, so the extra support is important.

“It’s not that everything is so bleak and pessimistic, but that’s the reality that we’re facing and that’s one of the reasons we advocated for passage of the farm bill with additional safety net provisions or expanded safety net provisions for our farmers,” Howell told the Indiana Capital Chronicle.

Under the Price Loss Coverage and Agriculture Risk Coverage programs, farmers can receive financial assistance during periods of low market prices. Generally, farmers can receive payments to replace lost income if market prices for their commodities fall below reference prices set in the Farm Bill. The House farm bill increases the statutory reference price for corn from $3.70 per bushel to $4.10 and for soybeans from $8.40 to $10.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the price of Indiana corn per bushel in May 2024 is down $1.89 from May 2023, while the price of soybeans is down $2.60. The cost of producing the crop also rose from 2021, according to data from Purdue University’s Center for Commercial Agriculture.

Todd Davis, INFB’s chief economist, wrote in an emailed statement that the new farm bill, which increases basic funding for crop insurance, will make these safety nets more affordable for farmers.

“The combination of falling prices and rising costs has created a profitability environment in which farmers are experiencing very tight or negative returns on their cost of production,” Davis said. “Farmers are protecting their revenue risk by purchasing crop insurance.”

Howell also believes the bill’s funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Market Development program is beneficial to Indiana’s agricultural markets. He said Indiana farmers have already been able to sell their crops in South Korea and China, and the funding could help them expand markets in Vietnam, Indonesia and Mexico.

“We continue to produce a lot of corn and soybeans sustainably in Indiana, and we just have to continue to look for domestic and foreign markets,” Howell said. “We see a lot of opportunities to sell corn and soybeans overseas.”

Several Democratic lawmakers, including Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, have criticized the bill for limiting future updates to the formula used to calculate SNAP benefits. But the proposed bill would allow low-income Americans with drug convictions to receive SNAP benefits — something the 2018 legislation does not allow.

Nearly 287,500 Indiana households received SNAP benefits in May 2024, according to the state Division of Family Resources.

Financing environmental protection

The House version of the bill would also eliminate “climate boxes” for environmental projects funded with Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) money. Under the new bill, agencies could use the money to support environmental efforts that are not based on fighting climate change. It would also shift all unobligated IRA funds to established, locally run environmental programs and invest IRA money to create several new environmental programs.

Boritt said the lack of those climate requirements shouldn’t stop the bill from passing. He said the Indiana Wildlife Federation’s top priority in the farm bill is getting permanent baseline funding for conservation efforts. While the House bill removed the climate requirements, it permanently shifts IRA funding for those conservation efforts.

“I fully understand that there are concerns about the lack of consideration for climate, but the billions of dollars that went into the base of the Farm Bill, I think it’s a huge win for Indiana,” Boritt said.

He also said nearly 1.3 million acres of land in Indiana are protected under the 2018 Farm Bill, which funded the U.S. Farm Service Agency’s Conservation Reserve Program. The program pays farmers to keep environmentally sensitive lands — such as land with river buffers, grassy waterways and trees — out of agricultural production. He said the farm bill “is really a game changer.”

“In a state like Indiana, this is hands down the most important environmental funding we get,” Boritt said. “The farm bill is huge, and I’ll say this a million times, but it’s really the single biggest driver of environmental protection in our state.”