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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Respond to growing issues facing U.S. farmers

The Columbian
Published: May 7, 2024, 6:03am

During last year’s debate over the U.S. Farm Bill, Congress did what it seemingly does best. It avoided the issue and put it off for another day, extending the 2018 Farm Bill rather than piecing together a comprehensive update.

Now, that delayed day of reckoning is drawing near, with the Farm Bill expiring in September and members of congressional agriculture committees beginning negotiations. Given Congress’ recent history, another extension is likely — especially in an election year; but that will not solve the pressing issues addressed by legislation that greatly impacts the food that Americans produce and consume.

Among those issues is climate change and how it impacts farmers. That was demonstrated in a recent gathering of local growers.

“We’re all here to urge Congress to reauthorize the Farm Bill, including robust funding for the climate-smart agricultural programs,” said Sue Marshall, a local farmer who also is a Clark County councilor. “I think, as farmers, we’re among the first to see and experience impacts of climate change.”

Republicans in Congress are considering cutting or diverting climate-related spending in the Farm Bill, arguing that the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act already set aside billions of dollars for farmers. But Clark County growers say those programs were critically underfunded in the past.

That is just one example of the complexity of the Farm Bill, a piece of legislation that dates to the Great Depression and typically is reauthorized every five years. With 12 titles included in the bill, it touches upon subsidies for farmers, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (colloquially known as food stamps), conservation programs and more.

House and Senate committees recently released outlines for the bill, and House Agriculture Committee Chair Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., said: “I hope for unanimous support in this endeavor to bring stability to producers, protect our nation’s food security and revitalize rural America.”

Unanimity is unlikely, as there is plenty of room for argument about how best to provide food security for consumers and stability for producers. But if those are sincere goals, Congress should focus on robust support for small farms and for nutrition assistance.

Too many provisions in the Farm Bill are geared toward corporate farms at the expense of small growers. As The Washington Post wrote editorially last year: “One of the most pernicious indirect consequences of the Senate’s bias in favor of small farm states has been to foster interest-group capture of agriculture policy. Abundant evidence shows a disproportionate share of the benefits flows to relatively high-income farmers.”

Meanwhile, the SNAP program has become a routine sticking point in Farm Bill negotiations. According to the Food Research & Action Center, 16 percent of households in rural counties receive SNAP benefits, compared with 13 percent of households in metropolitan counties. If revitalizing rural America is a priority, lawmakers should recognize the impact of cuts to the program.

All of this is relevant to negotiations over the Farm Bill. But, as Clark County farmers point out, it is somewhat secondary to the pressing needs presented by climate change. We can argue over subsidies for soybean producers or the challenges faced by family farms or the adequate level of nutrition assistance, but those points are largely moot if a changing climate alters when and where crops can be grown.

And they are moot if Congress again avoids dealing with the issues facing America’s farmers.