Members of a House Democratic task force on the farm bill say they should use their power to protect their interests during negotiations on the legislation or else hold out until there is a change in the makeup of Congress.

During a roundtable discussion hosted by the task force Thursday in the Capitol, the group's chairman, Bennie Thompson, D-Miss, was joined by Reps. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., and Jim McGovern, D-Mass., to hear stakeholders’ insight on how to formulate the caucus’ farm bill priorities. 

Thompson said the goal is to finish the task force’s recommendations by the end of the month.

Hayes and McGovern are members of the House Ag Committee. Thompson is not. McGovern also is the top Democrat on the House Rules Committee. 

Thompson encouraged commodity and other groups to stay united, noting they “can’t be too territorial if we’re going to get a compromise farm bill.”

McGovern said cutting nutrition programs was a non-starter for Democrat support. If that’s the path Republicans plan to take, “let’s not do a farm bill. Let’s buy some time until we get a Congress that will actually do the right thing. We have some power here,” McGovern said.

The lawmakers said the farm bill reauthorization offers a chance to address issues that are prioritized by Democrats and to capitalize on the need to pass a bill.

Hayes said in attempting to achieve bipartisanship, Democrats should not give up their desire to tackle systemic inequities. “I think so many times that we concede ... ‘this is the best we can get,’ and we live to fight another day. But there’s no reason to even do that. We should be able to come to the table on these issues and do things that are advantageous for everyone,” she said.

“I hope that we produce a farm bill that is forward thinking, that builds capacity and infuses the pipeline and really thinks about the next steps so that we are not just putting Band-aids on generational problems that we have,” Hayes added.

One of the issues is funding for climate-smart agriculture, which Hayes said “should not be a fight.” She said she’s hearing many farmers in her district are already doing these practices but need government assistance to help with startup costs.

Leaders from the Environmental Defense Fund and the Environmental Working Group called on the Democrats to protect the new conservation funding provided in the Inflation Reduction Act, which Thompson called a “godsend” to address the shortfalls in funds for farmers who wanted to adopt climate-smart actions on their farm.

Thompson said Democrats will need McGovern’s help to protect those funds from an attempt by Republicans to reallocate those dollars elsewhere in the farm bill.

“If we want that money to continue, we will have to somehow get it included,” Thompson said into the farm bill baseline, but it should remain allocated for conservation. “If those various programs have made a difference, the goal is to get that difference infused in the farm bill so we can go forward.”

Cathy Burns, president and CEO of the International Fresh Produce Association, reminded the task force that the White House held its "historic" conference on hunger, nutrition and health last fall with the goal of ending hunger and reducing diet related disease by 2030.

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“Simply put, we cannot achieve these targets without a farm bill this cycle that deliberately put policies in place that aligns with those very goals,” Burns said.

“Domestically, specialty crops accounted for 44% of the farm gate value. Despite this, and the fact that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that 50% of our plate is fruits and vegetables, only about 3.5% of the farm bill expenditures target fruits and vegetables.”

Aaron Shier, director of government relations at the National Farmers Union, caught Hayes’ attention with what she called a “strikingly low statistic.” He noted that farmers and ranchers on average only receive 14 cents of every dollar that consumers spend on food.

Shier said the lower percentage of the food dollar going to farmers is why NFU is advocating for a competition title in the farm bill. “We think we need to focus on fair and competitive markets and build additional market opportunities for farmers,” Shier said.

Andrew Walmsley, a senior director of government affairs for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said the farm bill presents an “important opportunity for us to rise above partisanship." He urged Democrats to work together to pass legislation that protects food security and ensures future success for farmers.

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