Farming is hard enough without a battle over the Farm Bill


Yes, it’s that time again: Farm Bill time. Or, more appropriately the “Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018,” as the Farm Bill is a package of legislation that is passed roughly every five years. The legislation has a tremendous impact on farming livelihoods, how food is grown, and what kinds of foods are grown. And, of course, the provisions of the bill are now being deliberated as Washington grapples with yet another potential threat of a government shutdown. This bill seems to grow increasingly complicated and harder to pass, with a history of being caught in a legislative cycle of extensions, presidential vetoes, and partisan debates.  

This from “My personal sense is that we will do a temporary extension and begin work on passing a new farm bill at the beginning of next year,” said Rep. Kat Cammack, predicting a "political dogfight," as representatives battle it out on the House floor.  Other representatives, like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, believe the farm bill could be passed as soon as December 31 of this year." The current bill expires on Sept. 30, but the new deadline for a 2023 farm bill appears to be Dec. 31. On Jan. 1, 2024, some farm policy would revert to controls on production and costly price supports adopted in the 1940s.

The term “farm bill” might have been an apt description of this piece of legislation back in the ‘40’, but it’s a misnomer today. The bill addresses an increasingly critical and complex industry, covering programs ranging from crop insurance for farmers and healthy food access for low-income families to training in support of sustainable farming practices. 

So, as you can imagine, this is no small piece of legislation, either. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the 2023 Farm Bill could potentially be the first trillion-dollar farm bill in U.S. history, with total spending projected at $1.51 trillion. If you’d like to read all 807 pages of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, click here.

I’m always interested in all things farming; what farmers face and the actions being taken by the federal government to help sustain this very important industry. First off, because many of the banks with whom we have partnered over the years do business with local farmers or what most small banks call their “farm families.” But, I’m interested for other reasons, too; I grew up on a small farm in LaFayette, AL. 

With hogs, horses, and 120 head of cows, I get a taste of what hard work farming is. Cutting and baling hay or repairing barbed wire fences in the Alabama heat is tough. Getting up in the dark of winter, to break the ice on the watering troughs. I know what it’s like to plant seed and hope that it rains. That’s not just a matter of hard work… It's a matter of having faith, as well. Then, there was the worry that comes with running a small farm… my dad keeping track of the cost of feed, maintenance, and supplies, especially when the price of beef would drop. 

Yes, I take both a professional and a personal interest in farming and the Farm Bill. If you’re a community banker in rural America, I’m sure you take an interest, too. Despite some gloom and doom talk about its passing, there have been some positive predictions about what it might offer. "If there's a golden nugget, it's the continuation of the federal crop insurance program," said John Blanchfield, principal at Agricultural Banking Advisory Services and a former senior vice president at the American Bankers Association. "It provides two flavors of income security to the farmer, and therefore his or her banker. Flavor one is the protection against weather-related damages — that's the traditional product. And the second is income protection, where a farmer may buy a floor price for their crop, and by doing so, the farmer has income certainty and the bank has repayment certainty."

So, what will the 2023 Farm Bill do, potentially, for farmers and community banks? 

Access to Capital

One of the primary benefits is improved access to capital for local farmers and businesses. Our farmers often require loans to purchase equipment, expand operations, or deal with unexpected challenges like crop failures or natural disasters. It’s the community bank that throws a lifeline to these borrowers, providing essential financial support that enables them to sustain and grow their businesses.

Crop Insurance and Risk Management

The 2023 Farm Bill will also play a pivotal role in bolstering risk management tools available to farmers, and crop insurance programs are a key component of this effort. These programs mean financial protection in the event of crop failures due to adverse weather conditions or other factors beyond their control. Small rural banks often act as intermediaries in the crop insurance process, helping farmers navigate the complex application and claims processes. The Farm Bill can enhance the effectiveness and accessibility of these programs, making them more appealing to both farmers and banks. 

Support for Rural Infrastructure

Another crucial aspect of the 2023 Farm Bill is its focus on rural infrastructure development. Small rural banks are intimately involved in funding and facilitating projects that improve access to essential services such as healthcare, education, and broadband internet. As rural communities evolve and grow, community banks are instrumental in ensuring that residents have access to modern amenities and economic opportunities.

Strengthening Community Banks

Small rural banks face numerous challenges, including increased regulatory burdens and competition from larger financial institutions. The 2023 Farm Bill recognizes the importance of these community banks and aims to strengthen their position in the financial landscape. It includes provisions to ease regulatory burdens on smaller banks, making it easier for them to serve their customers effectively. Additionally, the bill may provide financial incentives and grants to support the modernization of banking infrastructure and services in rural areas. This can help small banks stay competitive in a rapidly changing financial landscape, ensuring that rural communities continue to have access to reliable, personalized banking services.

More than legislation. A lifeline.

The 2023 Farm Bill is not just another piece of legislation; it is a lifeline for small rural banks and the communities they serve. These banks are essential to the economic vitality of rural America, providing access to capital, supporting risk management, and facilitating infrastructure development. As the Farm Bill unfolds, it has the potential to strengthen the foundation of rural economies, ensuring that small rural banks can continue to thrive and provide essential financial services to their communities.

Hopefully, Congress can pass the bill reauthorizing Farm Bill programs sooner than later. If not, they must pass a short-term extension. Failure to reauthorize the Farm Bill in a bipartisan manner and timely fashion will have significant impacts on local communities and economies in both urban and rural areas. And none of us want to see that happen.

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