Farm bill, funding updates

How does expired legislation potential shutdown impact farmer programs?

By Trista Crossley
Editor, Wheat Life

Producers are facing two financial uncertainties going into the end of 2023 that could have huge impacts on the agricultural industry. 

On Sept. 30, the 2018 Farm Bill expired with no sign of new legislation to replace it. Congress is also facing a funding deadline of Nov. 17 to avoid a government shutdown. 

Without a new farm bill or an extension, one of three things will happen to farm bill programs: some would lose funding and shut down; some programs, like crop insurance and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, would continue with little or no changes; and some would revert back to rules established in 1938 and 1949 farm bills, which could cost consumers and the government millions of dollars and leave many of today’s most popular crops, such as soybeans, with no support.

Nicole Berg, chair of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers’ (WAWG) National Legislation Committee and past president of both WAWG and the National Association of Wheat Growers, said at first, the wheat industry was hopeful that Congress would be able to pass a new farm bill before the end of the year, but now, an extension of the current farm bill is the more likely outcome, especially with 2024 being an election year.

“There’s been a lot of upheaval in Congress this fall, and with all the work on appropriations bills and keeping the government open, legislators are running out of time to pass farm bill legislation before the end of the year,” Berg said. “Most of the crop support programs farmers rely on are funded through the end of the year, but after December, without new legislation or an extension, some farm bill funding falls back to 1930s rules. Nobody really knows how that will go.”

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) agencies are keeping a close eye on Congress and making contingency plans. Farmers should check with their local USDA service center if they have questions.

Farm Service Agency (FSA)

Jon Wyss, Washington State FSA state executive director, said that even without a new farm bill or a farm bill extension, most of FSA’s programs already have approval authority, so payments will continue as normal until the program(s) term expires. This includes the Emergency Relief Program and the Pandemic Assistance Revenue Program. In addition, the state office just finished sending out Conservation Reserve Program payments in October. Even without a new farm bill, FSA staff can continue to take applications and sign producers up for programs; they just can’t sign new contracts.

“Until they give us the authorization and the software programs open back up, we’ll say ‘thank you for applying, and we’ve got you in the system,’” he explained. 

In case of a government shutdown, FSA state and county offices will close, and FSA employees would be put on leave until Congress passes a new funding bill. Wyss added that a few employees would be designated as essential personnel to check on the office(s), open mail, and deposit checks, but FSA offices wouldn’t be open to the public.

Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)

According to an NRCS spokesperson, generally, farm bill programs and provisions expire at the end of the fiscal year (Sept. 30) or the end of the crop year (varies by commodity), and permanent programs do not expire. For the time being, both permanent programs and programs that expire at the end of the crop year continue to operate as normal. 

Programs that expired on Sept. 30 and were authorized and funded through the farm bill have stopped receiving new funding and conducting sign-ups for 2024. Existing contracts in these programs continue, and in certain instances, program operations continue, to some extent, based on the amount of carry-over balances that remain in the accounts. 

Programs that expired on Sept. 30 and were authorized through the farm bill and funded through the annual appropriations process continue as long as they receive funding. Currently, NRCS is operating under a 45-day extension of last year’s annual appropriations, so these programs continue until at least Nov. 17. If Congress does not approve an annual appropriations bill for 2024 or another extension of the 2023 bill by that date, these programs will stop operating. 

In addition, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), extended some conservation programs and their funding authority for the IRA’s 10-year budget window, such as the Environmental Quality Incentive Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program. Because of additional funding from the IRA, producers have increased opportunities to sign up for oversubscribed programs. USDA has opened up the application period for fiscal year 2024 conservation assistance giving producers the opportunity to apply for this historic funding. NRCS encourages wheat producers interested in climate-smart agricultural or conservation practices to contact their local NRCS office to find out how they can begin the process of applying for funding or creating a conservation plan for their operation.

In the case of a government shutdown, NRCS offices will be closed and most employees furloughed.

Risk Management Agency (RMA)

Ben Thiel, director of RMA’s Spokane regional office, said if there is a lapse of funding through a government shutdown, RMA offices will close, and employees will be furloughed. Producers’ crop insurance policies will still be serviced, and any claims will be processed by their approved insurance provider. Crop insurance, while amended by farm bills, is permanently authorized and funded separately from other farm bill programs.