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A five-year farm bill was supposed to have been approved last year, but was held up in the House over disagreements on food stamps, conservation, crop insurance and funding. House Agriculture Committee Chair Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., announced last week that he will find a way to push a farm bill out before Memorial Day in order to get President Biden to sign a new farm bill by the end of the year.

Don’t bet the farm on it.

Sen. Chuck Grassley said he is pessimistic, and so is Sen. Joni Ernst, both Republican Ag Committee members.

Rep. Randy Feenstra, R-Hull, is optimistic. “So there’s going to be a lot of talk, especially when it comes to SNAP and stuff like that. But I fully believe that we will get it out of the House, and then it’s just a matter of what (Sen. Chuck) Schumer and (Sen. Debbie) Stabenow is going to do in the Senate when it comes their way,” Feenstra told Brownfield News.

If a new farm bill can’t pass this year, it is expected that another one-year extension will be passed. Grassley said farmers would receive protection but not adequate protection. Getting beyond an extension of the same-old would be up to a new Congress, and as of now it is anybody’s guess who will be in charge.

It’s not as if the existing hang-ups are going anywhere. Fights over food stamps in the House stalled the last farm bill by two years. House Speaker Mike Johnson walks on egg shells in his caucus room as he is accused of caving in to Democrats on spending. The same sticking points will be as sticky in 2025.

It’s a huge piece of legislation with terribly complicated politics. You have regional interests from the South and Midwest battling over commodity payments. You have disagreements between commodity and livestock interests. Then you throw in cultural wedge issues like food stamps (SNAP benefits), and it all becomes a mishmash.

What used to be a fairly bipartisan process in the past decade has devolved into a food fight like everything else in Washington. Because so few know or care about the work of the agriculture committees, their work is controlled by the interest groups that fund our politics.

If food is important, the farm bill should be.

Our food security and agricultural resiliency are imperiled by a warming climate. A farm bill with conservation at its core could serve farmers and the environment better.

The farm bill as it is and has been over the past 40 years has resulted in more consolidation, accelerated rural depopulation, more surface water pollution in Iowa, and fewer farmers.

It also has stunted funding for research into livestock disease as pandemics build and bird flu jumps to humans.

Putting a new label on a defective product does not make it better.

But it might make some politicians look better if they can say they actually got some lipstick applied to the pig.

Crop insurance remains intact, as does a safety net for commodity markets. Food stamps too. As Grassley said, the protections are in place. So instead of jamming through an even worse farm bill than we already have, which is likely in this election year, we may all be better off if we take our time and do it right.

Ernst should be the No. 3 Republican in the Senate following the election, and the top woman in the caucus. She could establish herself as a national leader by stating unequivocally that nutrition programs are the most efficient way to fight poverty, which makes all of America stronger. Democrats and Republicans used to join hands over it — Hubert Humphrey and Bob Dole, Tom Harkin and Chuck Grassley.

Someone needs to be a voice of reason. The ethanol industry, for example, is openly acknowledging that the future for corn growers depends on capturing tax credits for carbon dioxide pipeline. That’s not a great position for Iowa farmers to be in. But that is where the current farm bill puts us.

We could write a new piece of legislation that enhances soil and water health while directly paying farmers for stewardship. We can make conservation programs a lot more flexible. We can help farmers diversify their revenue streams while cleaning up the Raccoon River, which did not have a nitrate problem before farm programs encouraged planting fencerow to fencerow. And it could cost less if we cut corporations off the teat, which would have a lot of appeal in Iowa. That is not likely to happen by Memorial Day. More of the same is.

Art Cullen is editor of the Storm Lake Times Pilot, where this column first appeared, as well as Art Cullen’s Notebook on Substack. It is republished here as part of the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

Editor’s note: Please consider subscribing to the collaborative and its member writers to support their work.

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