Farm Bill funds rural development and the federal food program

Stock photo

Stock photo

WASHINGTON — The Farm Bill is one of the oldest federal funding bills. Nearly a century ago, the first iteration of it was written and passed by Congress in 1933, just a decade after Native Americans became recognized citizens on their own lands.

Since then, 18 farm bills have been passed but only one has included and applied to federally-recognized tribes, the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018, known colloquially as the Farm Bill.

“So the biggest one, and one of the easiest ones for Congress to make was just adding, 'and tribes,'” said Carly Griffith Hotvedt, director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative. “Anytime it said a ‘state may’ or an ‘organization may’ or a ‘business may,’ we want to make sure it said, ‘and tribes.’ Because historically, tribes have not been able to access some programs just because they weren't delineated or designated as eligible.”

It is one of the most important omnibus bills that funds everything from rural development to federal food programs and broadband access. The Farm Bill is more than just what the slang title entails. The 807-page legislation allocates $428 billion into 12 areas: commodities, conservation, trade, nutrition, credit, rural development, research, forestry, energy, horticulture, crop insurance, and miscellaneous. It's renewed every five years.

The deadline for Indigenous nations to comment has passed.

The Farm Bill is once again up for renewal and with a push by Republicans to lower federal spending, Congress is in a tight spot and the deadline for approval is looming. However, a more pressing issue could get in the way, a partial government shutdown if Speaker Kevin McCarthy can’t rally his base to pass the fiscal year 2024 federal budget. Both omnibus legislations have deadlines of Sept. 30.

History of the Farm Bill

In 1987, the Intertribal Agriculture Council was at the forefront representing tribal producers and the interests of Indigenous nations. The council was able to get tribes and tribal producers listed several times in the 1990 Farm Bill, a historic first.

In the past, there was only a small cohort of people creating one- to three-page request papers. There was often little interest from Indian Country for this legislation. One of those early champions was Janie Hipp, who is now the inaugural president and CEO of Native Agricultural Financial Service.

“She looked at what other entities were doing, what state governments were doing, and saw this void,” said Toni Stanger-McLaughlin, CEO of Native American Agriculture Fund. “She (Janie Hipp) had this idea to create the Native Farm Bill Coalition. She sought out private funding when she left the (U.S.) Department of Agriculture and Shakopee was one of the big founding funders for that initiative. Today, they're one of the main partners in that work.”

Hipp was the first Native woman to serve as general counsel of the USDA.

At first, the coalition had just one staff member who did the legwork of pulling together one- and three-page request papers as well as educating tribal leaders on why the Farm Bill is important. Slowly but surely, the capacity for the coalition grew.

What made all the difference in 2018 was hearing from tribal leaders about the importance of the Farm Bill to their nations.

This growing movement had its first big wins that year.

The Native Farm Bill Coalition was able to get 63 tribe-specific provisions that made it into the final legislation that was signed into law by then-President Donald J. Trump.

“It doesn't take an army, it takes one,” Stanger-McLaughlin, Colville Confederated Tribes, said. “You could be one person in your community, gathering information and make a difference for your community in the Farm Bill.”

Future outlook

The wins in 2018 opened up more than just funding for Indigenous farmers and ranchers. It started pilot projects that gave tribal nations more control over the producers they bought from and what kinds of food could be offered through their food distribution programs.

Before, tribal programs were often limited in what producers they could purchase from.

“It's reestablishing tribal trade networks and is also sourcing culturally relevant, traditional foods that are more in line with metabolic profiles and dietary profiles that better fit Indigenous populations in the Americas,” Hotvedt, Cherokee, said. “That is a huge, huge opportunity that has been very successful and the second iteration of funding has rolled out. We are hopeful about the 2023 Farm Bill. If we get one this year, hopefully, it doesn't become the 2024 Farm Bill, that it expands into a permanent program.”

It paved the way for tribes to have more oversight over conservation efforts on their historic territories located off sovereign lands that are now managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Tribal governments can use the Good Neighbor Authority clause to create forestry management agreements with state governments and the U.S. Department of Agriculture through pilot projects in the 2018 Farm Bill.

The goal of this year’s Farm Bill is to keep their wins and push the pilot programs into permanent ones, Hotvedt said.

Though this could be challenging as House Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Josh Brecheen, Choctaw, are firm in cutting government spending. Brecheen was part of the group that opposed the appointment of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy because they worried he wouldn’t support cutting government spending.

A full draft of the bill from the House and Senate is likely to be released in September. Both chambers had already drafted parts of the bill before their August break. The Senate will reconvene Sept. 5 and the House follows after on Sept. 12.

The appropriations bill funding the agriculture department and U.S. Food and Drug Administration provided some insight to how the Farm Bill might go this year. The House, where there is a Republican majority, cut down the agriculture budget by more than 30 percent, according to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

While the Senate, where there is a Democrat majority, increased the budget by $500 million.

Congress will likely have to pass a continuing resolution for the Farm Bill that will provide funding but it definitely won’t fund everything, though neither chair for the House or Senate Agriculture Committee has stated one would be needed.

“Generally, the programs within the Farm Bill will continue to operate and be funded for a very specific amount of time with a specific amount of funding associated with it. That doesn't mean that every program that USDA administers, pursuant to Farm Bill, will continue at the same funding range,” Hotvedt said.

As the deadline for both the Farm Bill and appropriation bills creep closer, the House Freedom Caucus is already threatening to let a government shutdown occur if the Secure the Border Act of 2023 is not included in the Continuing Resolution, a band-aid solution to passing the full 12 appropriations bills but it will keep the government running until December.

“We will oppose any attempt by Washington to revert to its old playbook of using a series of short-term funding extensions designed to push Congress up against a December deadline to force the passage of yet another monstrous, budget-busting, pork-filled, lobbyist handout omnibus spending bill at year’s end and we will use every procedural tool necessary to prevent that outcome,” members of the House Freedom Caucus stated in a letter.

Historically, when federal budgets get slashed the first to get hit are tribal-specific agencies and programs.

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