6 things to know: Stabenow unveils plan for ‘Rural Prosperity’ in new Farm Bill framework

A massive package of federal legislation making its way through Congress aims to put the US Farm Bill on the fast track to being signed before the end of the year.

By Kyle Kaminski

May 9, 2024

A package of more than 100 bipartisan bills announced by US Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) is designed to help boost federal support for farmers and rural communities.

MICHIGAN—A massive package of federal legislation making its way through Congress aims to put the US Farm Bill on the fast track to being signed before the end of the year—and keep farmers farming, families fed, and rural communities strong, lawmakers announced this month.

US Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan), chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee, last week unveiled the “Rural Prosperity and Food Security Act,” which contains more than 100 bills and is designed to serve as the framework for the US Farm Bill.

Stabenow said the legislation addresses issues like foreign ownership of farmland, provides “meaningful investments” for farmers and rural communities, promotes climate-friendly land conservation practices, and protects access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

“The foundation of every successful Farm Bill is built on holding together the broad, bipartisan coalition of farmers, rural communities, nutrition and hunger advocates, researchers, conservationists, and the climate community,” Stabenow said in a statement. “This is that bill.”

According to a high-level summary of the legislation provided by Stabenow’s office, the bills are also designed to help support new, underserved, and small farmers and ranchers—focusing assistance on “farmers with dirt under their fingernails and not billionaires and foreign investors.”

And by investing in nutrition assistance and incentivizing farmers to boost access to fruits and vegetables in their communities, Stabenow said the bills will help more working families make ends meet, as well as improve the overall quality of life for people who live in rural communities.

This is a serious proposal that reflects bipartisan priorities to keep farmers farming, families fed, and rural communities strong,” Stabenow said. “And I welcome my Republican colleagues to take it seriously and rejoin us at the negotiating table so we can finish our work by the end of the year. Farmers, families, and rural communities cannot wait any longer on the 2024 Farm Bill.”

What is the Farm Bill?

Every five years, Congress gets together to pass a massive piece of legislation known as the Farm Bill. While the bill has a lot to do with farming and agriculture, it has 12 sections in total covering a range of policies—from food assistance to land conservation and crop insurance.

The bill—which is primarily implemented by the US Department of Agriculture—is one of the main sources of federal investment in rural communities, but it also affects millions of people in urban and suburban areas as well, ensuring they have access to a safe, stable supply of food.

The last Farm Bill was passed in 2018 and was set to expire last year, before being reauthorized for one year until the end of September, which means lawmakers (like Stabenow) are working on crafting the newest version of the bill right now.

Keeping Farmers Farming

Stabenow’s office said the legislation unveiled last week provides support to farmers hit by disasters that are outside of their control—like extreme weather events—through various improvements to crop insurance, including new premium discounts for beginning farmers.

The legislation is also designed to support education and training for the next generation, namely by creating a new initiative to support agriculture programs at community colleges, as well as strengthening research programs between the federal government and universities.

According to a 94-page summary from Stabenow’s office, the bills would also permanently fund agriculture-related student scholarships at nearly 1,900 colleges and universities and create a new federal Office of Small Farms to help advance the interests of family farms.

The bills also include additional funding to help farmers detect and respond to animal disease outbreaks, including the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza currently plaguing farms.

Keeping Families Fed

Stabenow’s office said the legislation will help more Americans make ends meet by expanding access to food benefits through the Thrifty Food Plan that was included in the 2018 Farm Bill. The plan calculates how SNAP benefits go out to families—and it accounts for the fact that it costs significantly more per person to feed a small family than it does a large one.

In 2021, benefits calculations made using the Thrifty Food Plan amounted to a benefits increase of roughly $1.35 a day for about 2.4 million people—including 1 million children—and provided the first meaningful update to the SNAP program in 50 years, according to Stabenow’s office.

The bills would also remove the lifetime ban on nutrition assistance for those convicted of drug-related felonies, as well as enable Puerto Rican residents to receive federal benefits and improve access to assistance for college students, military families, and seniors, officials said.

Under the bills, funding for the Farm to Food Bank program would also be increased. That program helps farmers divert unused agricultural products—like milk—to be processed, packaged, and distributed to households across America through a network of food banks.

The legislation also explores allowing hot foods—like rotisserie chicken—to be purchased with federal food assistance benefits. Generally, hot foods and other pre-prepared meals that are ready to be eaten are not currently eligible to be purchased with SNAP benefits.

Keeping Rural Communities Strong

Rural communities have long faced higher barriers in accessing existing federal funds. And unlike their urban neighbors, rural leaders often lack funding and staffing resources to navigate the overlapping challenges of competing for federal funds, according to Stabenow’s office.

The legislation announced last week aims to improve quality of life for rural families by providing funding to modernize health care facilities in rural communities and “removing paperwork barriers” that make it easier for rural leaders to navigate federal programs and resources.

Under the bills, the federal Rural Partners Network—which is designed to steer resources and funding to create jobs and build infrastructure—would also receive a “baseline” funding of $50 million per year. In addition, the bills call for a new, comprehensive approach to rural childcare—namely by prioritizing federal funds to rural communities where access is limited.

Additional support for manufacturing, small businesses, and rural cooperatives is also set to help invest in growing the middle class and creating more “good-paying” jobs in rural America—including more jobs in biofuels used for aviation fuel, biobased plastics, and more.

Stabenow’s office said the legislation will help streamline the application process to access federal grant programs that support rural jobs—including Rural Business Development Grants, which specifically support businesses with fewer than 50 employees in rural communities.

The bills also call for more funding for the Food Supply Chain Guaranteed Loan Program, which provides loans of up to $40 million to finance food system projects—specifically for the start-up or expansion of activities that support the development of local food supply chains.

According to Stabenow’s office, the legislation will also expand access to high-speed internet in rural communities by expanding the bipartisan ReConnect Program, which provides loans and grants to cover the cost of building out broadband internet in rural communities.

The legislation also calls for making critical investments in public water and wastewater systems in rural communities nationwide, according to a summary from Stabenow’s office.

Confronting Climate Change

Stabenow said the legislation would also bring all of the conservation funding from the Inflation Reduction Act into the Farm Bill, as well as maintain a focus on addressing climate change.

Specifically, the legislation seeks to bolster programs that incentivize farmers to use environmentally friendly agricultural practices and curb greenhouse gas emissions, as well as make additional federal investments to deploy renewable energy on farms nationwide.

Additionally, the bills place a “new focus” on reducing methane—a potent greenhouse gas—and sets aside funding for small farms that have had difficulty accessing existing federal incentives designed to encourage farmers to use specific practices that protect water, air, and soil quality.

The bills also leverage forests as a tool to address climate change by expanding efforts to plant trees in communities across the country, establishing a new Office of Urban and Community Forestry to expand green spaces, and designating over 100,000 acres of forest as wildernessthe largest plot ever protected in a Farm Bill, according to Stabenow’s office.

Protecting forests can help to slow the rate of climate change because trees (and other plants) remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which is the primary driver of climate change.

What are people saying?

US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said that Stabenow’s plan represents a realistic vision for the US Farm Bill—reportedly labeling it “very comprehensive” and “well thought out” last week.

“I think it’s a practical approach. I mean, we’re living in a constrained environment. It has to be doable. It has to be affordable and I think she has been able to do that,” Vilsack told reporters.

Dozens of other agricultural groups, including the National Young Farmers Coalition, the National Rural Health Association, the National Farmers Union, the American Farm Bureau Federation, and the League of Conservation Voters have also voiced support for the legislation.

The current US Farm Bill expires Sept. 30, giving lawmakers a relatively tight deadline to review Stabenow’s latest proposal, consider any changes, and then pass the legislation to President Joe Biden to be signed into law. Congressional committees are set to consider the package of bills—as well as a dueling framework from House Republicans—over the coming weeks.

READ MORE: 4 reasons you should be paying attention to the Farm Bill

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Follow Political Correspondent Kyle Kaminski here.

Author

  • Kyle Kaminski

    Kyle Kaminski is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than a decade of experience covering news across Michigan. Prior to joining The ‘Gander, Kyle worked as the managing editor at City Pulse in Lansing and as a reporter for the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

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