Farm Bill discussions with the Senate Ag Committee Staff

By: Wazenn Nithesh, ASU Food Systems graduate student.

Agriculture was one of "three great branches of domestic industry" along with commerce and manufacturing. All three were equally entitled to the care and protection of the government. Agricultural interests were distinct and not always best served when included with those of commerce. On December 9, 1825, by a vote of 22-14, the U.S Senate approved a resolution creating a standing Committee on Agriculture.

On May 17th, 2022, graduate students from the sustainable food systems program visited the Russell Senate Office Building to meet with the US Senate Agriculture committee staff Katie Naessens, Lauren Wustenberg, and Khadija Jahfiya during the food-policy immersion week in Washington, DC.

Katie Naessens is a senior professional staff at the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. Katie has served in the senate for over eight years as a strategic professional, with over a decade of experience, working at the nexus of economic development, innovation, and sustainability to build resilient local and global food systems. She is skilled at working with government, private sector, NGOs, financial institutions, and research partners to develop public policy, debt and equity finance tools, and public/private partnerships that drive social impact and create solutions to complex food system challenges. Her passion is in healthy food access, diverse agriculture production, environmental sustainability, and community impact.

Lauren Wustenberg graduated from Vermont law school in May 2021 with a J.D. and Master's in Food & Agricultural Law and Policy. She joined the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry as a legal counsel. She assists with drafting legislation, policy work, and congressional oversight within the Senate Committee. Specifically working on matters related to climate change, conservation, environmental regulation, and pesticides within the U.S. federal agricultural system.

Khadija Jahfiya joined the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry as a legislative fellow and now a policy analyst. She contributes towards drafting the upcoming farm bill, which is due for a re-authorization in 2023.

The $428 billion Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, more commonly referred to as the 2018 Farm Bill, is set to expire on Sept. 30, 2023, impacting virtually every part of the agriculture sector. As such, the U.S. agriculture community (food producers, processors, and state, local, tribal and federal officials) have turned their attention to the Farm Bill's reauthorization. Therefore, our key discussion during the visit revolved around the drafting procedures, legal hurdles, essential stakeholder engagement, and establishing bipartisan agreements for the Farm Bill.

Katie Naessens discussed challenges the present committee staff face, although many are similar challenges and concerns as seen in the past: commodity price and income support, trade, research, food safety, nutrition, and conservation. However, a formidable new challenge the current committee faces as to any others in the past is the issue of climate change. Katie emphasized the importance and great interest of climate smart agriculture efforts in shaping the upcoming Farm Bill since climate change has impacted the farmer’s bottom line.

In addition, the committee staff also discussed the Department of Agriculture’s new partnerships that provide up to $1 billion for pilot projects that create market opportunities for commodities produced using climate smart practices.

Khadija Jahfiya took us through the Farm Bill reauthorization process, which is every five years. As we discussed the reauthorization process, Congress had already begun soliciting stakeholder input to establish its priorities for the next Farm Bill. We discussed in detail how the house and senate agriculture committees each must draft, amend, and vote on their own versions of the Farm Bill, which are then reconciled before being voted on in final form. Once passed, the bill is sent to the president for signature, allowing the USDA to begin implementation.

The committee staff also mentioned the first official action for the upcoming 2023 federal Farm Bill was held on Friday, April 29, 2022, at Michigan State University. Senator Debbie Stabenow, chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, hosted the Michigan field hearing. The Chairwoman was joined by Ranking Member John Boozman from Arkansas.

Katie Naessens along with the other two staff concluded with discussions over the key factors in determining the final priorities for the 2023 Farm Bill reauthorization process, which is happening in an election year. As such, stakeholders must engage with both Democrat and Republican agriculture leadership to combat climate change while drafting the Farm Bill. With polls indicating Democrats are likely to lose control of the House and perhaps the Senate, Republican lawmakers will be in no hurry to agree to Farm Bill provisions if they are confident that they will hold the pen next year when the Farm Bill is finalized.

This blog is part of a series from the May 2022 Washington D.C. Immersive component of the Swette Center graduate programs. Students met with federal food and agriculture focused officials at USDA, the White House, and Congress alongside many other important influencers of policy in industry and non-profits.