Feb 24, 2023
By Allison Jenkins
In 2012, Justin Sherlock found himself immersed in the political scene of Washington, D.C. The then-25-year-old from a tiny North Dakota town had made his way inside the Beltway, working as executive assistant for the National Farmers Union. It was a busy time for the organization, as Congress was in the midst of drafting a new farm bill. Part of Sherlock’s job involved helping organize farmer “fly-ins” to Capitol Hill and planning a rally to encourage action from lawmakers.
But before the bill was completed, tragedy struck the Sherlock family. Justin’s father, Jarrod, was killed in an automobile accident in August 2012. The younger Sherlock immediately decided to leave his big city career and returned to Dazey, North Dakota, to take over the row-crop operation his dad had started in the early 2000s.
“I had always wanted to farm, but I didn’t think there was a way to do it since Dad was really just getting started,” Sherlock says. “When he passed away, I knew at that moment I needed to try to make it work, or it was likely never going to happen. Getting into farming from scratch is almost impossible.”
Sherlock soon found himself on the receiving end of the farm bill he had helped to champion in D.C. He quickly learned the importance of its safety net, especially for beginning growers like himself. His farm has been hit hard by floods, freezes and other disheartening difficulties during the past decade. Crop insurance has been a lifeline more than once, says Sherlock, who raises soybeans, corn, pinto beans and barley on about 2,000 acres.
“The farm bill provides reassurance that if a disastrous year hits, there will be tools available to help get me through until the next crop,” says Sherlock, who serves on the North Dakota Soybean Growers Association board and was recently elected to the American Soybean Association board. “I truly think without the farm bill, especially its crop insurance and disaster pieces, I would not be in business today.”
Now, as the 35-year-old prepares to plant his 11th crop, the next iteration of the farm bill is being negotiated amid an unprecedented period of volatility for the agricultural industry. The sweeping package of legislation gets updated approximately every five years and authorizes a wide range of programs, from the farm safety net and food policy to conservation initiatives and rural development. The current bill was enacted in December 2018 and expires Sept. 30, 2023.
“We have come through so many black swan events since the last farm bill—the China trade war, the COVID situation, the Ukraine war, supply chain disruptions—and we’ve had some devastating natural disasters along the way,” says Christy Seyfert, ASA’s executive director of government affairs. “Farmers are also dealing with skyrocketing input costs and rising inflation and interest rates. These challenges reinforce the critical need for farm policy that is reliable and predictable and provides a strong safety net.”
ASA’s policy team meets with House Ag Committee Chair Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson on the Hill while advocating for the farm bill and other soybean policy priorities. Pictured: Alexa Combelic, Ariel Wiegard, House Ag Committee Chair Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, Christy Seyfert and Virginia Houston
Unfortunately, the shifting political landscape could hinder timely passage of a new farm bill, which has a projected $1.3 trillion price tag. With a razor-thin Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and Democratic control in the U.S. Senate, drafting the 2023 version will likely require even more bipartisan support than in the past. Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, a Republican from Pennsylvania, will lead efforts as chairman of the House Ag Committee, while Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan, will oversee the Senate’s role as chair of its Ag Committee.
“Rep. Thompson has been very vocal about wanting an on-time farm bill, which is going to take a lot of work, relationship-building and education,” Seyfert says. “There’s a presidential election coming up in 2024, so I think there is a sincere interest among congressional leaders to get the farm bill moving, keep it moving and finish it this year. If they’re committed to it, then we’re going to do our part.”
Indeed, ASA’s farm bill preparations have been underway for more than a year. The organization conducted an in-depth farm bill survey of soybean growers in late 2021 and held 12 virtual listening sessions in 2022. ASA then used that input to develop a farm bill priorities document that reflects the wants, needs and concerns of soybean growers across the nation.
“We had that document prepared by last May and have already used it as basis for congressional testimony as well as media interviews and other presentations,” Seyfert says. “As the farm bill debate heats up this year, we’re going to continue sharing those priorities broadly, all in an effort to make a better farm bill for soybean growers.”
Protecting crop insurance, improving the farm safety net and expanding trade resources were the three most consistent messages gleaned from farmer feedback and will be among top priorities for ASA in its farm bill lobbying efforts, Seyfert says.
“These three areas are clearly near and dear to soybean farmers’ hearts, but we also have needs in other areas, such as conservation, rural development, biofuels, infrastructure and nutrition,” she says. “Soy is such a versatile crop, and there are opportunities for us throughout the farm bill.”
ASA then-president Brad Doyle (AR) chats with Senate Ag Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow during a farm bill hearing in Arkansas in June 2022.
Continued access to affordable, effective crop insurance was top of mind for farmers who participated in ASA’s listening sessions and surveys, Seyfert says. Currently, some 90% of soybean acres are protected by crop insurance, a number that she says needs to be maintained, if not improved.
Sherlock, who farms in North Dakota’s challenging “Prairie Pothole” region with its low-lying, flood-prone areas, couldn’t agree more. He says crop insurance often has been critical to continued viability of his operation, no more so than this past year when 30% of his acres were subjected to prevent-plant conditions.
“Crop insurance really does form the backbone of our risk management, and it works very well,” the young farmer says. “It’s effective, and farmers know how to use it. When we buy a policy, we know our coverage and how much exposure to risk we have. It helps provide stability to know I can farm again next year if this year doesn’t go as planned.”
While crop insurance may be considered the most important component of the farm safety net, commodity programs are also important risk management tools authorized by the farm bill. Elements of these programs are based on historical planted acreage, also known as base acres, and not dependent on current production. For the new farm bill, ASA wants producers to have the ability to voluntarily update their historical base acres to reflect more recent planting patterns.
Along with that change, ASA is asking for an increase in the soybean reference price that triggers the safety net benefit. Right now, the statutory reference price is set too low and should be re-evaluated, Seyfert says.
WISHH used Foreign Market Development funds to provide training to SESACO Limited of Uganda so the company could expand its offerings of soy-protein based foods. Photo Credit: WISHH
“The big test of the soybean safety net was the China trade war a few years back,” she explains. “At its height, hardly any farm safety net benefits were triggered. And that’s pretty incredible when you consider that our largest export market was shut off. Soybean farmers had to turn to the administration to help close the gap. Thank goodness there was a response, but it’s not something that we can count on all the time.”
The soybean industry’s complicated relationship with China also factors into the need for increased investments in global promotion of U.S. commodities. Among its farm bill priorities, ASA is asking to double funding for the Market Access Program and Foreign Market Development Program, which are public-private partnerships between USDA and industry groups to promote U.S. agricultural exports. ASA is a collaborator with both programs, and promotional initiatives are carried out by other soy organizations, including the U.S. Soybean Export Council and ASA’s development program, the World Initiative for Soy in Human Health, or WISHH.
“Over 50% of the U.S. soybean crop is exported each year. And the giant among our export markets is China,” Seyfert says. “We want to continue to have access to that market, but at the same time, we want to diversify and strengthen our export markets and ensure we can meet supply and demand needs across the world. Doubling the funding for these programs would help us continue to build and grow globally.”
If this request is realized, $69 million would be allocated annually for FMD and $400 million for MAP. These increases are long overdue, says Virginia Houston, ASA director of government affairs who specializes in trade policy. She says MAP funding has not changed since 2006 and FMD funding has remained the same since 1997, even as global competition has grown substantially.
“We can definitively say FMD and MAP helped grow the Chinese market for U.S. soy into the success it is today,” Houston says. “Egypt is a great example as well. During the past five years, demand for U.S. soy there has increased by 178%. These programs clearly contribute to our success and are critically important to us, but they are in need of more funding. We’ve come a long way with the money we have, but there’s so much more we could do.”
Fighting for funding likely will be the biggest challenge most of ASA’s farm bill priorities will face, Seyfert says.
“No doubt, it’s a tough ask to get new money in an environment where folks are sensitive to expenditures by the taxpayer, but agriculture is a completely justifiable and worthwhile investment,” she says. “In fact, it’s critically important from a national security standpoint. You only have to think back to the empty grocery store shelves during COVID-19 to remember how important agriculture is.”
Another concern is the fact that dozens of policymakers have never voted on a farm bill before: According to American Farm Bureau Federation, "Almost half of Congress, 260 members, were not in office when the 2018 Farm Bill was passed." That disconnect means farmer and industry outreach is more important than ever, Seyfert says.
“I think the No. 1 hurdle that I have heard from Republicans and Democrats who are seasoned in farm policy is the enormous educational effort that is going to be required of the new Congress,” she says. “That’s both a challenge and an opportunity.”
As a farmer who turned from politics to production, Sherlock wholeheartedly agrees.
“Most government officials I have worked with, whether local, state or federal, really do want to hear from farmers because we’re the ones that these programs are meant to help. They don’t write policies just for their sake,” he says. “They want to know what works and what doesn’t. The best thing farmers can do is come forward and share either success stories or frustration points they have with current farm programs.”
Soy growers can provide input on the farm bill and other policy by visiting the Soy Action Center online at soygrowers.com.
As farm bill development begins in earnest, soybean growers will have many more opportunities to give input about this all-important legislation, Seyfert says. She encourages farmers to keep an eye out for ASA’s “Action Alerts” and visit the Soy Action Center, an online engagement tool that connects them with members of Congress and provides information on policy campaigns, among other valuable resources. The site can be accessed at soygrowers.com/soy-action-center.
“Farmers are critically important in the farm bill process; policymakers need to hear from them,” Seyfert says. “At ASA, we will do all we possibly can as lobbyists in D.C., but when the farmers share their voices, it is a very powerful combination to have our work and their work going hand in hand.”
The farm bill has its roots in the economic and environmental crises of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl of the 1930s, when Congress developed measures to assist the struggling agricultural sector.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 as an integral component of his New Deal policies. The legislation’s original goals were to keep food prices fair for farmers and consumers, ensure an adequate food supply and protect and sustain the country’s vital natural resources. In 1938, Congress created a more permanent farm bill that is typically updated every five years to reflect changing needs in farm policy and the nation.
While the farm bill has changed dramatically in the nine decades since—evolving from relief for farmers into a comprehensive approach to farm and food policy—its primary goals are the same.
“The farm bill provides predictability in agricultural policy,” said Christy Seyfert, executive director of government affairs for the American Soybean Association. “That’s critical, especially today, because the needs in farm country are real.”
Members of Congress who sit on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry and the House Committee on Agriculture hold the primary responsibility of drafting farm bills. When each one nears its expiration date, the legislation goes through an extensive process where it is proposed, debated and considered by both chambers and then considered for enactment by the president.
Since the 1930s, 18 farm bills have been enacted. They have become increasingly expansive in nature since 1973, when a nutrition title was first included. Other prominent additions include horticulture and bioenergy titles and expansion of conservation, research and rural development provisions.
The current version is called the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018. It has 12 titles, including Commodities, Conservation, Crop Insurance and Nutrition that account for 99% of total farm bill funding. Other titles are Trade; Credit; Rural Development; Research, Extension and Related Matters; Forestry; Energy; Horticulture; and the catch-all Miscellaneous.
The name and composition of the 2023 Farm Bill is yet to be determined. Stay tuned.