The bill that decides how America eats is on the table again. Up for renewal is the Farm Bill, a $1.5 trillion package of laws that governs everything from agriculture to rural community development, to nutritional assistance, renewable energy and more.
The Farm Bill is reauthorized every five years, with the 2018 version set to expire on September 30. The omnibus bill is a historically bipartisan effort, but with the biggest price tag to date, legislators are gearing up for significant deliberation this fall.
On a recent episode of The Rural Business Show, host Ben Rowley and guest Kalee Olson, a policy associate with the Center for Rural Affairs, gave listeners the inside scoop on the Farm Bill. Together they provided an overview of the sweeping legislation, breaking down a handful of key programs, and highlighting ways listeners can get involved in the legislative process.
“Before I started this work in policy, I would have heard the term ‘Farm Bill’ and thought this is specifically for farmers, hard stop,” Olson said. “What I’ve learned since spending more time with the Farm Bill is that the title of the bill itself is a little bit misleading because it’s not only legislation that affects farmers and ranchers, but truly all rural people, and to an extent, even folks in urban communities,” she said.
Olson shared how she returned to her family’s farm in 2020 to manage the cow-calf herd after spending 15 years living and working in urban areas. Drawn back to rural Nebraska by memories of community connection and the leisurely pace of rural living, Olson’s appreciation for rural life is what led her to work at the Center for Rural Affairs.
“It took me meeting a lot of people from urban spaces to understand that a rural lifestyle is something that the majority of people don’t get to experience. I realized it was important to me to find a way to restore what I remember of rural communities, growing up in the 90s, and also work to preserve them so they’re there for future generations as well,” she said.
The Center for Rural Affairs is a nonprofit rural advocacy organization focused on strengthening rural communities, sustainable agriculture, clean energy and community development. Based in Lyons, Nebraska, it serves rural populations in Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, and Minnesota at the state level and all rural communities at the federal level. The nonprofit provides technical assistance and facilitates lending to support small businesses, rural homeowners, farmers, ranchers and other agricultural producers. Much of Olson’s work at the Center is centered around ensuring rural communities are engaged in policy making and aware of the opportunities available to them, especially those in the Farm Bill.
Evaluating the Farm Bill
“One of the tricky things about the Farm Bill, and all legislation, is that at the time of creation, lawmakers and people invested in policy are to an extent trying to be fortune tellers,” Olson said. “This legislation comes out every five years; we make legislation based on what we think could happen in those five years; and ultimately [what happens] is probably going to be different,” she said.
The Center manages this uncertainty — and the bill’s sheer breadth — by focusing its efforts on policies with the capacity to improve, learn and comment. During the show, Olson highlighted two key programs the Center is watching in the 2023 Farm Bill:
Conservation Stewardship Program
CSP provides funding and technical assistance to support conservation practices on farms and ranches without taking the land out of production. Through this working lands program, a farmer must demonstrate to their local United States Department of Agriculture office that they’ve invested in conservation practices and meet certain criteria. If their application is accepted, they can earn annual payments for activities like improving soil health or monitoring edge-of-field water quality.
“We see it as a win-win for farmers because they get to care for our natural resources without giving up their livelihoods,” Olson said.
CSP is fairly overextended, according to Olson, so the Center for Rural Affairs has been looking for ways to improve the program at an administrative level. For example, feedback from farmers has shown the enrollment process can cause disruptions in funding for farmers participating in the program. The Center is advocating to bring back autoenrollment, a provision that was removed in 2018 while providing resources to ensure producers know how to best navigate the program moving forward.
Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program
Another program featured on the show, RMAP, provides capital and support for “what I would consider mom-and-pop businesses on rural Main Streets,” Olson said. RMAP targets small businesses with 10 or fewer employees and provides microloans for preapproved uses like buying equipment and supplies or debt refinancing.
“RMAP serves the niche group of rural people who honestly have some of the greatest interest in bringing back these Main Streets,” Olson said.
Some of the Center’s priorities for this program include raising the loan cap from $50,000 to $75,000 to reflect increases in the cost of living. The organization has also lobbied to lift the prohibition on RMAP funding for renovation so businesses can make better use of old brick-and-mortar buildings in small towns.
“Our big takeaway is that, from where we stand, there is always room for improvement for programs, especially related to conservation and rural development,” she said.
How to Get Involved
On the show, Olson provided tips on how to get involved in the policymaking process based on her experience at the Center for Rural Affairs. Her advice:
1. Build and seek out coalitions. Olson’s first tip is to plug into nonprofit groups like the Center for Rural Affairs. These organizations are designed to amplify the voices of their constituents through direct feedback, and they will do the heavy lifting. Olson also noted that informal coalitions can also be an effective way to build momentum. “I like to encourage people to talk to their neighbors and find common issues that they can talk about and form their own coalition, whether that be a group of farmers having coffee, or a group of small business leaders who want to improve their community,” she said.
2. Speak up. Olson also encouraged listeners to share their ideas with legislators and groups like the Center. She often hears farmers qualify their ideas, believing they may be the only ones who care about certain issues. But Olson said all feedback helps. “Be sure to speak up no matter how small your idea might seem at the time,” she said.
3. Represent your community. Lastly, Olson highlighted the importance of community involvement for people of all ages. “Especially with some of the community members getting older in our small towns, it’s important to look for local leadership opportunities, whether that be in a formal capacity like becoming county commissioner, or something similar,” she said.
To learn more about how the Center for Rural Affairs influences policy and ensures rural voices are heard, listen to the full episode here or visit cfra.org. Get in touch with Kalee by emailing email@example.com.
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