May has ushered in renewed discussions on the farm bill reauthorization, but the success of this critical piece of legislation may now hinge on how it protects farmers from extreme weather—with serious implications for producers, consumers, and some of our country’s most vulnerable populations.  

In 2022, Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act, which included a historic $18 billion investment in America’s farms by boosting the assistance available from four key conservation programs that safeguard and strengthen the natural resources essential for farming.

The additional funds represent critical support for the future of farming and the vital natural resources necessary for its continued success. These are among the reasons the conservation programs are extremely popular: each year, more than twice as many farmers seek assistance than there are funds available; in 2023 alone, the demand by farmers exceeded the additional funding from the IRA. It is reasonable to expect that support in Congress for this investment should match the demand from farmers for the assistance.

Despite the popularity of these programs, the increased investments in fields and farming have come under threat in farm bill negotiations. Initially, some in Congress sought to redirect these funds away from conservation programs altogether. I reviewed the potential consequences of this in a recent report, highlighting the substantial costs of such a decision.

However, recent proposals in both the House and Senate provide positive indications of an agreement to protect these conservation investments, but important differences remain.

Conservation programs assist with an extensive variety of conservation practices, but the Inflation Reduction Act concentrated the additional investments on only those practices that help farmers on working farmlands with protecting soil and water, as well as advancing efforts to adapt and remain resilient in this changing climate.

Focusing conservation assistance in response to magnifying risks should be a priority for public policy at a time when farmers are locked in an intensifying struggle with increasingly extreme weather. Drought, fire, floods, and shifting weather patterns are devastating crops and livestock, harming soil health, depleting water sources, and damaging infrastructure. As one example, the Farm Bureau estimates that these natural disasters cost farmers over $21 billion in crop losses last year alone.

Farm bill reauthorization has been stalled for over a year, an impasse that has prevented any start to the difficult process. Recently, the chairs of both the House and the Senate Agriculture Committees released their visions for the farm bill.

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The Senate version takes the historic $18 billion dollar investment in farmers and makes it permanent, creating a powerful longstanding commitment to strengthen family farms for generations to come.

The House version indicates a commitment to maintain the funding for conservation programs -- a welcomed step forward but one that may divert funds away from prioritizing the most critical practices that address the risks to farming from our rapidly changing climate and the extreme weather across the county.   

Together, these proposals represent important steps in a positive direction, but there is much work to be done, especially for preserving the critical investment priorities in conservation practices that strengthen family farms, preserve natural resources, and protect against the risks from extreme weather and other threats to America’s farmland.

Time is of the essence; it is almost summer, and the amount of time left on the congressional calendar to get a farm bill done is short.

Jonathan Coppess is the Gardner associate professor of agricultural policy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He served as chief counsel for the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, administrator of the Farm Service Agency at USDA, and as a legislative assistant to Sen. Ben Nelson.