Congress averted a federal shutdown. But California must wait for new Farm Bill

Congress averted a government shutdown this week with a stopgap measure that gives lawmakers into early 2024 to agree on a full spending plan.

But it also extended the Farm Bill until Sept. 30, 2024, meaning it’s possible that California, the nation’s largest agricultural producer, will have to wait until then for the massive multi-year spending and policy measure last updated in 2018.

The Farm Bill covers over a dozen agricultural, conservation and food programs, offering lawmakers a chance about every five years to address issues in those spaces. Those include payments for major commodity crops — like rice or wheat — when prices or revenues decline; disaster programs for losses of livestock or fruit-bearing trees; conservation efforts; international trade promotion; farming loans and insurance; forestry management; and agricultural research.

While farming groups were pleased that key programs set in the last Farm Bill wouldn’t expire at the end of the year, it means that Congress might not address important updates until late in 2024.

“The current farm bill was written before the pandemic, before inflation spiked, and before global unrest sent shock waves through the food system,” Zippy Duvall, American Farm Bureau Federation President, said in a statement. “We need programs that reflect today’s realities.”

California grows half of the nation’s fruits, nuts and vegetables, a fifth of its milk supply and hundreds of different commodities, according to the state.

Earlier this year, state lawmakers sent Congress a list of revisions and maintenance that they wanted for the 2023 Farm Bill. Among them was the bolstering of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), known in the state as CalFresh, which provides more than 5 million Californians with food benefits.

“Any budget or policy changes should continue the structure of the SNAP,” they wrote, “so it stays responsive to economic changes and adequately supports Californians in need.”

The lawmakers — representing California’s Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), Health and Human Services, Environmental Protection Agency and Natural Resources Agency — also pointed to catastrophic weather patterns in the February letter. They called for improvements to disaster recovery plans for farmers and ranchers whose crops and livestock were affected by drought and floods.

“Farmers and ranchers in California are on the front lines of climate change,” they wrote. “Their operations, livelihoods, and employees are disproportionately subject to unpredictable factors beyond their control, particularly severe and ongoing drought, catastrophic wildfires, extreme heat events, floods, and market instability to name a few.”

Other priorities were more investments in conservation and irrigation programs, aid for new farmers and ranchers, funding for organic agriculture, increased food safety research, more robust rural broadband and communication infrastructure, better pest protection, and improved wildfire prevention in national forests.

They also noted the growing market for hemp products. The 2018 Farm Bill reclassified the plant, which has low THC levels, as legal to grow under federal law, unlike marijuana (California legalized weed in 2016). But federal lawmakers did not distinguish ingredients and weight classifications clearly enough for today’s world, California regulators wrote, making it possible for some hemp products to exist with high amounts of intoxicating compounds.

“The presence of these intoxicating cannabinoids in non-cannabis hemp products creates difficulty for states with strictly regulated cannabis markets, such as California, that have taken great care to prevent youth access, limit intoxicating ingredients, and enforce testing standards in their state cannabis markets,” they wrote.

“Significant opportunity exists for federal lawmakers to consider similar public health and safety measures — and limitations for intoxicating ingredients — for hemp products.”

The Bee reached out to CDFA to see if its priorities had changed since Congress passed the spending measure this week.

Extending the Farm Bill

The Farm Bill typically passes every five or six years on bipartisan votes. But amid the speakership battle and fights over funding cuts for climate issues and food assistance, Congress teetered on having some key programs end or revert to outdated guidelines at the beginning of 2024. The 2018 Farm Bill expired on Sept. 30.

The House and Senate Agriculture Committees proposed extending spending levels from the 2018 Farm Bill through Sept. 30, 2024, taking U.S. Department of Agriculture funds from a biorefinery program.

Some of its mandatory programs get funding through yearly appropriations, like SNAP and crop insurance, and don’t need a new Farm Bill to keep operating. The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act guaranteed many conservation programs be funded until 2031.

But authorization for other programs expires when the Farm Bill lapses. If not reauthorized or extended, long-abandoned laws dating back to 1938 and 1949 kick in for basic commodities, which could have upended consumer prices on important food sources like dairy.

The four leaders of the House and Senate committees agriculture committees Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Ranking Member John Boozman, R-Ark., in the Senate; Chairman Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Penn., and Ranking Member David Scott, D-Ga., in the House assured in a statement that they were still working on a five-year Farm Bill.

“As negotiations on funding the government progress, we were able to come together to avoid a lapse in funding for critical agricultural programs and provide certainty to producers,” they said Sunday.

The 2018 Farm Bill was estimated to spend $867 billion if used over the course of 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). This one could cost $1.5 trillion over a decade, the CBO said in May, given the pandemic, inflation and other adjustments. Food assistance programs made up more than three-quarters of Farm Bill spending. That will increase, according to the CBO.

Averting a shutdown

The overall spending blueprint presented by new House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., split deadlines for passing a dozen spending measures that keep federal agencies afloat. One set, including the bill to fund the Agriculture Department and Food and Drug Administration, must pass before Jan. 19. Other funding measures have until Feb. 2.

The agriculture appropriations bill covers issues beyond those authorized in the Farm Bill, such as the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, which helps low-income women expecting or with young children with nutritional assistance.

The GOP-led House passed the measure 336-95, with 209 Democrats and 127 Republicans supporting it. It passed the Senate 87-11, and President Joe Biden signed it into law late Thursday night.

Republican Reps. Tom McClintock and Jay Obernolte were the only Californians who voted against the spending measure, called a continuing resolution (CR). Democratic Reps. Nancy Pelosi and Kevin Mullin were in California for APEC and did not vote.

“This CR has NO spending reductions, NO border security, extends the Pelosi spending binge for another THREE MONTHS and extends the farm bill for a full year, precluding any reforms to the bloated food stamp program,” McClintock, R-Elk Grove, wrote on social media. “We have met the big spenders, and they is us.”