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Illinois ag groups sound off on 2023 Farm Bill needs

U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Moline) interviewed by media at pre-roundtable press conference in the Commodities Pavilion on the Illinois State Fairgrounds.
Tim Alexander
U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Moline) interviewed by media at pre-roundtable press conference in the Commodities Pavilion on the Illinois State Fairgrounds.

U.S. Congresswoman Cheri Bustos (D-17th) will vacate her seat in the House of Representatives following November’s midterm elections.

But before a new Congress continues the crafting of the 2023 Farm Bill-- which will guide U.S. agriculture and food policy for five subsequent years-- Bustos attended the Illinois State Fair's Agriculture Day on Tuesday, August 16, to promote her Next Generation Fuels Act and show support for congressional candidate Nikki Budzinksi, who will make a run for the U.S. House as a Democrat in the newly-drawn 13th Congressional District.

Bustos assembled a special “farm bill roundtable” of top Illinois agriculture leaders who met at the Illinois Department of Agriculture’s John Block Building on the fairgrounds. On hand for the discussion were the directors of Illinois’ top corn, soybean, pork, beef and specialty growers’ groups, along with key leaders from the Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDOA) and the Illinois Farm Bureau (IFB). Also on hand was State Senator Patrick Joyce, who co-chaired the farm bill meeting with Bustos.

Their mission: to lay out each group’s needs and wants regarding the language of the 2023 Farm Bill, which in addition to setting parameters for controversial agriculture crop insurance, disaster and conservation programs, also determines the amount of federal funding allocated for the popular food assistance program LINK, or SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

Prior to the meeting, during scheduled media interviews, Bustos and leaders of the Illinois Corn Growers Association, which is based in Bloomington-Normal, described their farm bill priorities.

“What I am hearing from farmers out there is to make sure that we ‘do right’ by crop insurance,” said Bustos, whose family on her father’s side have a long and continuing legacy as dairy, livestock and crop producers. “The top messages are to maintain crop insurance and a strong safety net. We’ve all lived through droughts and floods, and there was the (August 2020) derecho event that destroyed so many crops.”

Some in Congress, including the Republican Study Committee, are calling for less funding for the federal crop insurance program due to the unprecedented amount of emergency, ad hoc payments made to farmers under the Trump and Biden administrations during COVID-19 and weather-related disasters-- over $10 billion in all. Bustos advises lawmakers in charge of writing the farm bill to resist lessening the impact of the crop insurance program.

“Covid was a once-in a century (pandemic) and we had supply chain issues in agriculture. The ad hoc payments under the Trump administration were something we actually had to do,” she said. “I think you don’t mess with crop insurance. We want the next generation of farmers to succeed,” she said.

The 2023 Farm Bill will be the third farm bill Bustos, who co-chaired a recent House Agriculture Committee hearing on crop insurance and is co-chair of the crop insurance caucus in the House, will have helped to craft -- a process she describes as “deciding what to stop doing, what to start doing and what to keep doing.”

Like many other lawmakers hailing from agriculture-dependent states, Bustos fears that her colleagues from typically non-farming states will again move to separate the Food and Nutrition title of the farm bill (which provides funding for the SNAP program) from the “rest” of the farm bill-- making it much more difficult to obtain federal funding for the “farming” titles within the legislation.

“I am dead set against separating them, and here’s why: you’ve got some lawmakers in the very urban parts of our nation that have never seen a corn field or a soybean field, and probably never set foot on a dairy farm or a pig farm. They’re not going to understand like we do in the Midwest the ag policies that are important to our family farmers,” Bustos said.

“At the same time they’ve got more poverty in some of the urban areas, so the SNAP program is critical to those legislators. So keeping those together helps us get to good ag policy, helps feed our poor, and in the end helps our producers, because we (taxpayers) are paying for those commodities. Keeping (the titles) together is necessary to getting the votes you need to pass a farm bill. That’s the political part of it.”

While maintaining crop insurance and SNAP are also two of top 2023 Farm Bill priorities for the Bloomington-based Illinois Corn Growers Association (ICGA), strengthening export market access is near the top of their list of farm bill wishes. This can be done by adding more funding for trade promotion to the farm bill’s trade title.

“Trade is such a critical area for our economy nationwide, but especially here in Illinois. A lot of corn grown here in Illinois leaves our state for (other destinations), so our trading partners are critically important to us. We hope that focus and emphasis remains very strong,” said Martin Marr, ICGA president and a farmer from New Berlin.

Under the federal crop insurance program, farmers usually face a deductible of around 20 percent for claims. According to Matt Rush, ICGA vice president and district director from Fairfield, an increase in crop insurance deductibles would help shut many new and beginning farmers out of the business. “It’s just there to protect us, to get us through to the next year,” he said. “Just like your car insurance, it’s not going to replace 100 percent of the value, but it will help.”

Young farmers would face extreme resistance from most banks when applying for business loans without proof of federal crop insurance, Rush added.

Richard Guebert, Jr., president of the Illinois Farm Bureau, which is also located in Bloomington, called for USDA-Farm Service Agency (FSA) loan processes to be simplified and loan limits raised for new and beginning farmers with the next farm bill. “We talk time and time again about the challenges young producers are having in getting and securing FSA loans. We would appreciate it if they would waive the requirement of three years of financial statements to qualify, as well as eliminate the graduation clause that raises the interest rate when a beginning farmers’ financial condition begins to improve.”

Guebert said the farm bureau also supports the elimination of a 2018 Farm Bill clause that tied conservation program compliance-- such as enrollment in the United States Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)-- to a farmer’s eligibility to receive crop insurance payouts.

“That was a big fight, or conversation, in the last farm bill,” he said, adding that the IFB has conducted around 20 farmer meetings in various locations to gauge sentiment around the 2023 farm bill.

According to Guebert, in these times of high fuel and other input costs, maintaining a strong safety net through the federal crop insurance program is tops on Illinois farmers’ wish lists heading into 2023 Farm Bill negotiations.

The federal farm bill was established in 1933 as a result of the Great Depression’s effects on farming. Since then, lawmakers have passed 18 farm bills. In 1985, Congress added a conservation section to the farm bill.

The farm bill’s conservation programs pay farmers to make environmental improvements on working land or to forgo production on highly erodible and environmentally sensitive land. One year of outlays for farm bill conservation programs exceeds the annual budget for the National Park Service, according to Now Habersham.

The farm bill’s nutrition title, added in 1973, is now the legislation’s single largest outlay, accounting for roughly three-fourths of expenditures.

The most recent farm bill, the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, has 12 titles and includes programs for commodity crops, nutrition, trade, crop insurance, forestry and rural development. Estimated by USDA at a cost of $428 billion over its five-year lifespan, the 2018 Farm Bill expires in September 2023.

Tim Alexander is a correspondent for WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.