The bipartisan, urban-rural coalition that has been vital to successfully passing past farm bills may be fraying as Democrats and Republicans have settled into a stalemate over nutrition and farm program funding this year. Few lawmakers have more at stake in this tug-of-war than Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga. 

Warnock is the sole Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee from the South, and he's challenging the committee's chair, Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., on her proposal for commodity programs at the same time he also wants to protect nutrition assistance. Democrats control the committee by a single seat, 12-11. 

Warnock, who also serves as the senior pastor of Atlanta's historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, represents a major agricultural state with one of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. 

Agriculture contributes about $83.6 billion annually to the state economy, according to the Georgia Farm Bureau. It’s the second largest cotton producing state after Texas, and is a top producer of other commodities like peanuts and pecans. Georgia ranked 16th nationally in ag production in 2022.

“I represent a state where I'm concerned about our rural communities and our urban communities,” Warnock said in an exclusive interview with Agri-Pulse. “The only way you get something over the finish line is to strengthen those coalitions. And the coalitions don't always exist in the places that people might think.”

He argues that the 5% increase in Price Loss Coverage reference prices Stabenow has proposed is "woefully low." The bill the House Ag Committee advanced last month would provide greater increases, including a 13.5% price bump for cotton, and one of Georgia's two Democrats on House Ag, Sanford Bishop, voted for the bill in committee.

In a letter sent to Stabenow last week exclusively shared with Agri-Pulse, Warnock celebrated the inclusion of funding for nutrition programs and climate-smart agriculture in her Senate framework. However, he reiterated concerns that the reference price increases are not enough to ensure Georgia farmers can keep their land and continue operations. 

“I am interested in, and I continue to fight for farmers and for those who deal with food insecurity; the idea that we must do one or the other is a false choice,” Warnock told Agri-Pulse. “At the end of the day, whether we're talking about farming or talking about providing a basic safety net for hungry children in our country, the farm bill is the bread basket for our country."

As the committee's only southern Democrat, Warnock said he has the “opportunity to be a bridge” on the farm bill. “It means that I'm in rooms, creating coalitions with people with whom I disagree most of the time. And I guess that's a good place for the pastor to be.” 

Warnock, 54, isn't up for re-election until 2028. He won a special election in January 2021 before being elected to a full term in 2022. He’s one of two Black Democrats on the committee. The other is Cory Booker, D-N.J.

The farm bill has historically been a “congressional anomaly” in that it’s usually a bipartisan effort, and divisions are typically more regional than partisan, said Salaam Bhatti, SNAP director at Food Research and Action Center. Specifically with the nutrition title and SNAP, there’s been bipartisan support around protecting it, he said. 

However, he said the GOP proposals to make future USDA updates of the Thrifty Food Plan cost-neutral run counter to this tradition. The Thrifty Food Plan is a model of food costs that USDA uses to set SNAP benefits. Republicans argue that their provision would prevent a GOP administration from cutting SNAP and that the Biden administration improperly used a 2021 update to significantly increase SNAP benefits. 

When asked if he’s concerned about the rural-urban coalition breaking apart, the top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, John Boozman, R-Ark., told Agri-Pulse most lawmakers want to get a farm bill done. But Boozman is concerned that people want to maintain the “status quo” when it comes to farm programs. There’s too little recognition that there needs to be a significant improvement in risk management tools, in Boozman's view.

“We've had an 85% increase in nutrition … but we haven’t kept track with the farm part of the farm bill,” Boozman said to Agri-Pulse Tuesday. “We’ll get to a farm bill, but we’re not going to just do something. We’re going to do something that’s meaningful.” 

Warnock said he’s looking to join forces with members who have similar interests and goals, even if they are motivated by different reasons. 

He pointed to bipartisan work on “common sense” measures included in the farm bill like legislation with Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., on precision agriculture. 

The current fight in Congress over the farm bill is based in politics and isn't “a contest” between farmers and hungry children, Warnock said. Having House and Senate versions of the farm bill gets Congress closer to the goal of passing the legislation. 

“It's difficult when you're punching the air. So I'm glad we finally got two bills,” Warnock said. “There are differences, to be sure, but at least now we know what they are.” 

With proposals now out from Stabenow, Boozman and House Republicans, Warnock said it’s important to recognize the only way a farm bill can be passed is to “give and take.” Ultimately, it only hurts farmers to let the debate drag on, Warnock said. 

There are already many aspects of the business that farmers don’t have control over, and there’s no reason to add uncertainty about what federal policy and reference prices may look like, Warnock said. 

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He added the longer Congress takes to pass a farm bill, the less impact a raise in reference prices provides. 

“The later it gets, the higher the price,” Warnock said “It’s costing farmers right now for Congress to drag its feet on getting a farm bill done. So we know the parameters of the conversation. Let's get a farm bill done.” 

Debbie Stabenow 1.JPGSenate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.

Warnock said he hears from Georgia farmers who are struggling with input costs, changes in the marketplace and other elements they can’t control. During farm bill talks, Warnock said he would continue to support commodity farmers in Georgia and across the country. 

But Stabenow argues that the reference prices in the House farm bill would primarily benefit “big farmers” in the South rather than small farmers. 

Meanwhile, Republicans have argued that the $5 billion in additional funding that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has promised to Stabenow for the farm bill is not enough to address the needs of farmers, or to adequately increase reference prices. 

Warnock did not provide specifics on where funding for greater reference price increases would come from, but he noted that there's a significant funding gap in the House Agriculture Committee's bill, because of the way the Congressional Budget Office scores the method Republicans want to use to pay for increasing reference prices. 

Warnock has several other proposals to help farmers, including ones aimed at lowering barriers for beginner and underserved farmers, that did make it into Stabenow's proposal. 

One of the provisions from his Southern CROPS Act in Stabenow's legislation would increase marketing loan rates. The new rates would be calculated using a cost of production adjustment to ensure rates go up if the forecasted input costs are above average for a crop year. 

Forecasted input costs under the bill include the cost of interest, labor, property taxes, seed, fertilizer, fuel, oil, electricity, pesticides and net rent to landowners. 

If that measure had been included in the 2018 farm bill, Warnock’s office estimates producers would have received a 10% increase in 2022, 2023 and 2024. 

Another provision from Warnock that made it into the Stabenow bill would require USDA to provide underserved produced of covered commodities a one-time chance to establish or increase base acres if they meet the necessary criteria. A major barrier for underserved farmers is the ability to obtain more base acres, and this provision aims to address this challenge, according to Warnock's office. 

Stabenow's proposal also includes a Warnock provision that would increase the Economic Adjustment Assistance for Textile Mills (EAATM) program payment rate from 3 cents per pound of cotton used to 4 cents. The goal of this provision is to encourage more domestic options for farmers to sell cotton for production. 

“Farmers are an answer to a prayer that many of us pray every day: Give us this day our daily bread,” Warnock said. “We should be strengthening their hand to answer that prayer.”

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