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The 2023 Farm Bill is held up in Congress. Here's how that could impact Vermonters

A red barn surrounded by fields, with mountains in the distance, on a sunny day
April McCullum
Vermont Public
Vermont Edition host Mikaela Lefrak discusses what's in the 2023 Farm Bill, its status in U.S. Congress, and what could change in the legislation.

The farm bill is a massive piece of federal legislation that impacts the livelihoods of farmers across the country. It also covers food access programs for low-income families.

The farm bill needs to get renewed by Congress every five years, but the current version has already passed one of its expiration dates, at the end of September.While it's not unusual for the legislation to get delayed, this could have implications for Vermont farmers and people who rely on food access programs like SNAP.

How one farmer fits in the system

Abbie Corse is a sixth-generation farmer at Corse Farm Dairy, an organic dairy milking around 50 cows in Whitingham. And she says it's through "luck, privilege and good fortune" her family has been able to keep their farm a grazing dairy, and that they've managed to not take on too much debt.

Because, Corse says, the farm bill — U.S. agriculture policy — does not favor farms like hers.

"The way that the farm bill is structured, my farm essentially isn't supposed to exist," she says. "The farm bill keeps us in the loop of being reliant on these monocropping kind of industrial agriculture models that rely on a lot of chemical inputs. And so for an organic dairy, when those tools are literally not something that you're permitted to use... You're, you know, literally operating a farm in the exact opposite model that our federal policy has determined is the way that you should operate a farm."

Corse says past and present members of Vermont's congressional delegation have been strong advocates for Vermont farms. But:

"The sad reality is ... the amount of money that is poured into lobbying for the farm bill by multinational corporations —and this is all tied into the fossil fuel economy as well, right, those chemical inputs are byproducts of the fossil fuel economy — and so our congressional delegation is up against the same types of forces that we're all up against," she says. "We're all kind of doing the David versus Goliath fight."

As for how the next farm bill could change this current dynamic — Corse says there could be more funding for regenerative agriculture practices.

"My hope is that, at the very least, we can get some additional funding for peer to peer — you know, farmer to farmer — supports, and a lot more education about the importance of soil health and organic matter and the ways in which particularly as we face these increasing extreme weather events, that all of those things are going to help us build a far more resilient agricultural and food economy in Vermont, for our farmers, and for our citizens," she says.

Corse adds that a lot of that work is already being done, farmers just aren't getting compensated for it.

Farming, nutrition impacts from delayed farm bill

Vermont advocates say further delay in reauthorizing the 2023 Farm Bill could have implications both for farmers and for people who receive food assistance.

Maddie Kempner is the policy director for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont. She says one program that reimburses organic producers for their certification fee — of particular importance to smaller farms — is at risk of being stranded if Congress fails to act.

Another program at risk is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, known as 3SquaresVT in this state. Currently close to 70,000 Vermonters use the program.

"Where my thoughts go... is really the question of: does this Congress have the ability and the willingness to get done what we need to do in order to keep people fed who rely on SNAP benefits, for example?" Kempner says. "And to keep these programs that really are foundational supports to our producers here in Vermont operating going forward?"

Hunger Free Vermont Executive Director Anore Horton says 3SquaresVT, child nutrition programs and emergency food programs will all remain funded through Jan. 1, 2024, no matter what Congress does.

"What we're calling on Congress to do is to actually pass a continuing resolution and keep these programs funded for a longer period of time," Horton says. "If you need help affording enough food for you and your family, you should apply for these benefits... And I know our congressional delegation is committed to doing everything they can to make sure that continues uninterrupted."

Horton points out that as of 2022, two in five Vermonters reported hunger or food insecurity, a 40% increase over the previous year. She says these are the consequences of Congress ending pandemic-era policy raising benefit levels.

"That made a huge, huge different for people," Horton says. "And now those benefit levels have gone back to their levels that were set in the 2018 Farm Bill, right, and they are completely inadequate, especially when coupled with the incredible inflation in the cost of food and everything else."

What happens now

Moving forward, Horton says Hunger Free Vermont and other organizations are advocating for "common sense" improvements to the SNAP program. That includes allowing recipients to use their benefits for purchasing hot, prepared food, which they currently can't do.

"[T]here is actually bipartisan support both Republicans and Democrats who support eliminating the three words that would have to get crossed out in the farm bill in order to get rid of that prohibition on hot foods at grocery stores," Horton says. "And it's so important, because like just the recent flooding this past summer here in Vermont, so many people displaced from their homes... many of those people are living in hotels, or they are camping, and they need to be able to buy hot prepared food, they don't have a way to cook."

Maddie Kempner from NOFA-VT echoes organic dairy farmer Abbie Corse and says there are similar changes to federal agriculture policy that could incentivize agriculture practices for combating climate change.

"They're not technologically advanced, or particularly expensive," Kempner says. "Things like rotating crops so that farmers can be less reliant on pesticides and fungicides and herbicides, it's investing in people's ability to become certified organic, if they choose to. We're talking about grazing livestock, which many Vermont farmers already do, we're talking about planting trees along streams and rivers so that we can increase habitat for wildlife and be more resilient in the face of flooding."

She says this can happen through legislation like the Agriculture Resilience Act, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Peter Welch.

"By shifting a lot of those resources that are currently propping up these larger scale industrialized farms, to the practices we're trying to see in the Agriculture Resilience Act, we will actually support a built the ability for our smaller farms to feed us in our communities," Kempner says.

Broadcast at noon Monday, Nov. 6, 2023; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

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Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Andrea Laurion joined Vermont Public as a news producer for Vermont Edition in December 2022. She is a native of Pittsburgh, Pa., and a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. Before getting into audio, Andrea worked as an obituary writer, a lunch lady, a wedding photographer assistant, a children’s birthday party hostess, a haunted house actor, and an admin assistant many times over.
Elodie is a reporter and producer for Vermont Public. She previously worked as a multimedia journalist at the Concord Monitor, the St. Albans Messenger and the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, and she's freelanced for The Atlantic, the Christian Science Monitor, the Berkshire Eagle and the Bennington Banner. In 2019, she earned her MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Southern New Hampshire University.