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The farm bill isn’t just about farming [replay]

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KAYTE YOUNG: From WFIU in Bloomington Indiana, I'm Kayte Young and this is Earth Eats.

SHELLYE SUTTLES: In terms of what is being discussed right now, I would say the one point two trillion dollar elephant in the room is SNAP. And so the 2023 farm bill is estimated to be the most expensive farm bill in US history over the course of ten years worth of outlays.

KAYTE YOUNG: This week on the show, we're talking about the importance of the upcoming Farm Bill. Our guest is Shellye Suttles, Agriculture Economist at the O'Neill School for Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University. Stay with us.

KAYTE YOUNG: Thanks for listening to Earth Eats. I'm Kayte Young.

KAYTE YOUNG: On a recent episode of All Things Considered, Juana Summers spoke with Megan Sandel, Co-Director of the Boston Medical Center's Grow Clinic, which focuses on treating malnutrition issues in children. She described a typical family that she sees in her clinic. A parent sometimes working two jobs, with a child that's not reaching expected points on the growth curve. And the parent is struggling between putting food on the table with increasing prices, or paying rent, which has also gone up. It is a heartbreaking scenario that no parent ever wants to face. It is why SNAP exists. Snap is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; what they used to call food stamps. Megan Sandel pointed out that SNAP is the largest anti-hunger program in the US, calling it "an evidence-based tool for ensuring that families put food on the table." In the pandemic, SNAP was one of the ways the Government supported households when many people couldn't work. They increased the monthly dollar amount, which has made a huge difference for families facing rising food prices due to inflation. Sandel noticed that increases in SNAP benefits have a positive effect on children's growth. This was documented in the Great Recession in 2008 and 2009. When they boosted SNAP, child growth improved. When they cut it back, she says "We saw kids stop growing, being in fair to poor health, and their care-givers being in fair to poor health." Sandel goes on to say that the first three years of life; that's the period with the most rapid growth in terms of brain and body. When kids miss out on key nutrition in that window, it's difficult to catch up.

KAYTE YOUNG: The pandemic increases in SNAP benefits have improved childhood nutrition as they did in 2008. And now they're expiring and returning to the pre-pandemic levels. This has people like Megan Sandel and the families she works with at the Grow Clinic very worried. SNAP is a big topic on Capitol Hill right now. And when I say big, I'm talking one point two trillion dollars big. 2023 is a Farm Bill year and funding for SNAP is a significant part of the Farm Bill. And that's putting it mildly. On the show today, to help us make sense of the Farm Bill, is Doctor Shellye Suttles.

SHELLYE SUTTLES: I'm Shellye Suttles. I'm an Assistant Professor at the O'Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs here at IU.

KAYTE YOUNG: I wanted to start out by hearing about her field and how she got into agriculture research.

SHELLYE SUTTLES: My research as in Agricultural Economics, so my training is in Agricultural Economics. I have my PHD in Agricultural Economics. But it typically has two different strains within Agricultural Economics. So one strain is environmentally focused, thinking about agricultural production and its impact on climate change and how climate change impacts it. I've done research in the past looking at dedicated energy crops, agro forestry and those nature-based climate solutions. If you could consider them to be that. I know there is some debate lately about that. And then another vein of my research is more socio economic, so thinking about food access, food and security and food environment of consumers across the United States.

KAYTE YOUNG: Can you tell me the story of what drew you to study food and agriculture.

SHELLYE SUTTLES: That is a great question. I would say it was definitely being in the Peace Corp. I'm originally from Los Angeles, California. I had no background in agriculture whatsoever. To start off Peace Corp, you get sent to some city in the United States before they send you overseas. And they call this staging. And so we had staging in Miami and I packed all my bags; very excited to move to Guatemala for two years. And when I got to staging, other volunteers were asking what are you going to do? And I was like I'm going to be a Peace Corp volunteer. They were like we're all going to be Peace Corp volunteers, crazy. What are you doing? And I was like oh, I don't know, they haven't told me. How do you know? And they were like it's in the gigantic packet of information they sent you. I said oh, I didn't read it, I just brought it with me. And I opened it up at the table there and it said Sustainable Agriculture Livestock Production. And I am from Los Angeles, California. And I was like what are they thinking? Why would they put me in this cohort? But it was the time of my life. I very much enjoyed livestock production, working with Guatemalan women and households on a variety of different production activities. So, chicken production, rabbit production. Thinking about supplying medical kits to the women so they could generate revenue from vaccinating chickens or other livestock around town. So, it was the best two years I could have ever imagined. But when it was time for me to come home at the end of my service, I thought how can I be helpful. I don't necessarily always want to be overseas. What can I do to really contribute to the 'cause? And I thought maybe I'll study Agricultural Economics. I feel like, that's a gift I can share with people. I have some basic understanding of math and science. I can study this and then maybe I can continue to be helpful to the people across the world who may need research on these topics. And so that's how I found myself going to Graduate School for Agricultural Economics.

KAYTE YOUNG: Wow. So, I guess I would like to hear just a little bit more about the field of Agricultural Economics.

SHELLYE SUTTLES: Yes, so at the time, when I was done with Peace Corp, I was deciding two tracks. I was really interested in veterinary science because I was a livestock volunteer in Peace Corp. But then I thought Agricultural Economics is more broad. There are a variety of different opportunities to study different types of research with Agricultural Economists or professors at land grant universities across the country. And so I would say it's just any form of Applied Economics. So there's theoretical economics, which you would think about maybe Ben Stein doing some funny commercials as an Economist. Those kind of economists. But then there's also us Applied Economists. S, a variety of different topics. Agriculture, health; you really name it, education. There's most likely an Applied Economist thinking about that social topic as well.

KAYTE YOUNG: So when you were in the Peace Corp, it was really hands on, like you were working with people who were working with animals and you were working with the animals?


KAYTE YOUNG: That must have been such a shock. [LAUGHS] If you had no experience with that.

SHELLYE SUTTLES: [LAUGHS] No. Yes, so when you're a livestock volunteer; and I don't know if they do this to this day. But when we got sent, there's a medical book that Peace Corp sends you to site with. It's called "Where There Is No Doctor". And when you're a livestock volunteer, you get a companion called "Where There Is No Vet". [LAUGHS] So, they're just like here two books you can read. Go figure it out. I'm dating myself; there was no Internet so I had no access to a phone or anything of that nature to be able to quickly on the sly look it up. So I had to tell people, I don't know now but give me a day and I'll go flip through this "Where There Is No Vet" book and we'll find something. I've had more rabies shots than anybody could ever imagine, just from animals dying after I've stuck my hand into it and said oh, we don't know how it died. I said well I'll probably go get a rabies shot just in case.

KAYTE YOUNG: Wow, yeah, that sounds like quite the Peace Corp experience. [LAUGHS]

KAYTE YOUNG: I'm talking with Agriculture Economist, Shellye Suttles here on Earth Eats. After a quick break, we'll get into the nuts and bolts of the Farm Bill which is up for renewal this year. Stay with us.

KAYTE YOUNG: Kayte Young here. This is Earth Eats and we're back with Shellye Suttles. She's an Agricultural Economist at the O'Neill School of Environmental Affairs here at Indiana University, also known as SPEA. I invited her on the show today to talk about the US Farm Bill and why we should be paying attention to its renewal in Congress this year. We've talked about the Farm Bill on our show in the pasts, but for our listeners who might not be familiar, can you explain in a nutshell what the Farm Bill is.

SHELLYE SUTTLES: Yes, so the Farm Bill is an omnibus piece of legislation we have here in the United States and it has two main goals. One goal is provide a farm safety net for US farmers and the second goal is to provide a food safety net for US consumers. So that's why we see commodity programs, conservation programs; things really oriented towards agriculture, but we also see a set of programs like SNAP and WIC and the Emergency Food Assistance Program, that are more tailored towards that food and nutrition assistance for residents.

KAYTE YOUNG: Could you say what an omnibus legislation is?

SHELLYE SUTTLES: I imagine an Attorney invented that word "omnibus". It's probably legalese. It just means big. It has many parts. [LAUGHS]

KAYTE YOUNG: How often is it renewed?

SHELLYE SUTTLES: It's renewed every four to five years, depending on the politics of the country at that time.

KAYTE YOUNG: Can you talk about some of the policy movement that has happened historically around the Farm Bill?

SHELLYE SUTTLES: Yes. So definitely if we think about historically, the first Farm Bill was the Agricultural Act of 1933 and that was the time during the Great Depression. But many more Americans were farmers then so a larger percentage of the average household was directly involved in agriculture during that time period, so we saw many more farm programs. So, as time changed, more people moved to urban areas, or more areas just naturally became urbanized. People took different jobs outside of agriculture. The nature of the Farm Bill changed, some of its components changed. So we think about food and nutrition programs; at least in my opinion to some degree, these are still farm programs. So the money is spent on helping Americans be able to put food on the table. But these dollars are ultimately trickling throughout the US food supply chain and do reach farmers. So about 85 cents on every dollar we spend on food in this country does stay within US food supply chains. And so these are going to food processors, food manufacturers and farmers.

KAYTE YOUNG: What kinds of policy gets decided around the Farm Bill? Is this where subsidies for farmers from the Government come from?

SHELLYE SUTTLES: Yes, so if we think about what happened in the 2018 Farm Bill, it had 12 titles or 12 pieces of this Omnibus legislation. One of them was a commodity program, so when you hear people talk about row crops and other types of field crops; corn and soybean and how they're being subsidized to some degree, or have price supports or programming around providing domestic assurance of production. We can say these are housed within the commodity title. We do have a conservation title. So just in your question about how things have changed, conservation has become much more important, so the 2018 Farm Bill does have a conservation title. Many of the programs that the Natural Resources Conservation Service division of USDA runs are financed by this portion of the Farm Bill. So when we think about where is there subsidies for high tunnels to extend the growing season? Where are there subsidies for a variety of agriculture, nature based climate solutions? They're coming from this title. So as times change, things change. So I believe maybe with the 2008 Farm Bill, the Energy Title came about and so now we have a portion of the Farm Bill that helps us think about renewable fuels and bio-based fuels that can be generated through agricultural production. It would be very interesting to see any add-ons to the 2023 Farm Bill. I hear there is more discussion about creating a more robust section of the Conservation Subtitle though.

SHELLYE SUTTLES: There is also a rural title. So USDA is also to some degree tasked with rural development. And so many of these things around rural electricity cooperatives fall within these rural development pieces of the Farm Bill. So, I would say sometimes they're tangential, sometimes they're very apparent. But in the broad scheme of things, they are thinking about how can we support rural communities with a variety of different electricity options? Particularly, rural broadband is always important. USDA is looking to make sure all households have access to broadband when it comes to health and education and just general wellbeing. So, a lot is in there.

KAYTE YOUNG: That makes me think of another question that I had which historically, it feels like just in terms of the politics that happen around the Farm Bill, that there's often this rural urban split in terms of who are the people who are fighting for rural communities and farmers, and who are the people who are fighting for food assistance and that sort of thing? And it seems to me to be an oversimplification because especially in terms of food security, rural communities are faced with issues of food and security as well.

SHELLYE SUTTLES: That is very true. There is a lot of political conversation around rural versus urban, but when we look at the data over the years, we see that at present, many communities that we would consider to be rural actually are not agriculturally dependent any longer. So, they're in most cases dependent on manufacturing for their local economy. So even rural communities still have some distance between their direct connection to agriculture these days. And so I think that's where we see even more politicization perhaps of this rural urban divide, when even rural communities say oh, maybe my grandpa farmed, but we all got out of it and we're in manufacturing now.

KAYTE YOUNG: Yes, and with a lot of farm consolidation, there just are fewer people actually farming. Or owners of farms anyway.

SHELLYE SUTTLES: Yes, and it's hard work. I feel like to some degree that does count. It's hard work. [LAUGHS]

KAYTE YOUNG: Can you say anything more about the politics of the Farm Bill and to me, it feels like food and agriculture issues can really be bipartisan, like everybody should have an interest in the Farm Bill. But how does it often break down politically?

SHELLYE SUTTLES: Yes, so I would say probably there is going to be a big divide politically around this food safety net versus farm safety net. And so Democratic politicians are having a great concern about their constituents in populated urban areas and them having access to food and nutrition resources. Despite the fact that SNAP and food and nutrition programs are dispersed throughout the United States, including rural communities. But there is this understanding that Democratic politicians will be more sympathetic to the nutrition programs of the Farm Bill. And at the same time when we think about the farm safety net, we'd assume Republican politicians are those who are advocating for increased farm supports and support of domestic food production.

KAYTE YOUNG: And is there just a lot of lobbying from some of these large agro businesses?

SHELLYE SUTTLES: Well yes, but that's year round on a non Farm Bill year. And then across a variety of different advocacy groups. Even non-profit organizations who are advocating for increased food and nutrition programs have advocacy activities, lobbying activities to make sure that representatives understand they are interested in continued support for food safety net programs.

KAYTE YOUNG: So, there's pressure on all sides. [LAUGHS]


KAYTE YOUNG: But who's in the nicest suit is very apparent. [LAUGHS]

KAYTE YOUNG: Can you talk a little bit about what is on the table now? So we have one coming up and is it this year or is it 2024?

SHELLYE SUTTLES: It's 2023 but I've heard this split between the House and the Senate. The House being Republican-controlled and the Senate being Democratically-controlled. What will be the politics of getting the Farm Bill pushed through; I think there are questions there. In terms of what is being discussed right now, I would say the one point two trillion dollar elephant in the room is SNAP. So the Congressional budget office; every Farm Bill releases a report on their projected spending for the Farm Bill. And so the 2023 Farm Bill is estimated to be the most expensive Farm Bill in US history over the course of ten years worth of outlays. So they're expecting that it costs one point five trillion dollars for US tax payers to pay for all of the components of the 2023 Farm Bill. And of that one point five trillion dollars, they're estimating one point two trillion dollars will be spent on SNAP benefits. So this is where you hear a lot of the current discussion around what that means for the portion of farm safety net programs; so commodity programs, trade programs, energy programs, things of that nature, research and development. When the majority of the Farm Bill, 85% in this case, will be spent on nutrition programs.

KAYTE YOUNG: After our interview, I followed up with Shellye for more context on how this number got so large. She pointed out that the figure includes two increases in benefits due to revision of the Thrifty Food Plan Calculation, which determines the maximum SNAP benefits allotment for each household. Long-time listeners might remember a previous episode with Angela Babb whose research has focused on nutritional inequity in the Thrifty Food Plan and how inadequate it has been for purchasing enough nutritious food to feed a household. We have a link to that episode with Angela Babb in our show notes at Shellye also noted that SNAP benefits get adjusted annually to deal with inflation and this is included in this latest figure from the Congressional Budget Office. And just as a reminder, this one point two trillion dollar figure is not an annual cost. It is the estimated spending over ten years. Back to our interview.

KAYTE YOUNG: I, just as you were talking about that, was thinking about how much the pandemic really disrupted and threw a wrench in a lot of things. But I'm just thinking about a Farm Bill which has been planned several years in advance and then you're not expecting the kinds of assistance that farmers and food producers might have needed. Nor were you anticipating the kind of assistance that people might need for their household food budgets. And that just had to be dealt with on the fly. How does the Farm Bill deal with something like that?

SHELLYE SUTTLES: Yes, that is an excellent question. So when we think about on the agricultural side, there are agricultural disaster assistance programs. So fortunately that is somewhat built into the Farm Bill. So when we think about livestock disaster programs, crop disaster programs, there are these assistance programs that are made available. There is a non-insured crop insurance disaster assistance program. So if you decided not to buy into crop insurance which would have protected you, there is still a program that is available for you to get assistance from USDA to maintain what you need to maintain as far as being an agricultural producer.

SHELLYE SUTTLES: So typically, CBO is doing these estimates so we have some idea about how many people would be on SNAP generally. But the pandemic hit, it was unknown. And also one important piece of the conversation now is emergency allotment. So during the pandemic, most SNAP households actually received an emergency allotment that moved them to the maximum benefit for their household size. So people were receiving a larger benefit during the pandemic and this is ending so all households across the United States won't have that emergency allotment any longer.

KAYTE YOUNG: So it seems like maybe after the sort of immediate crisis of the pandemic then, those households were like well this is great that we have this extra money because now food prices are so much higher. But that's not being taken into consideration in terms of going back to the original amounts.

SHELLYE SUTTLES: Yes so unfortunately I feel like it was a terrible confluence of things. So food prices are extraordinarily high. Not only were food prices high due to supply chain issues, now we're struggling with the worst avian flu crisis in US history. So I peeked maybe the end of last year and I think at that point they had culled 50 million birds. And so these were all birds that came out of production and that's why we see eight dollar eggs. So it is just a confluence of things that unfortunately are causing high food prices at the same time we're reducing the food benefits we do give to households in need.

SHELLYE SUTTLES: Fortunately, USDA does revisit food prices every June and those new food prices get put into play in October, so the start of every fiscal year. But inflation had been so high month to month, there was really no way to keep pace with increasing inflation. So inflation is still growing, so we are still experiencing inflation for food at home. But it's not growing to the degree we've seen over the last year so hopefully, that will give households a bit of a break as emergency allotments wind down across the country.

KAYTE YOUNG: What are your thoughts about the way that these two pieces are connected through the USDA and through the Farm Bill? Like the fact that the same agency is dealing with agriculture and food assistance. Does that feel like it makes sense still?

SHELLYE SUTTLES: Yes, I guess from my perspective, I would say this is the only thing I've ever known, so it makes sense to me. I haven't spent any time thinking too far outside the box on this. But I would say it does make sense because, as I mentioned, for every dollar we spend on food; and this includes people who are receiving food and nutrition assistance. When they take that SNAP dollars to the grocery store with their EBT card, it's still impacting and influencing the US food supply chain across a spectrum. So to some degree, farmers are receiving some portion of every dollar SNAP recipients are spending on food. So why would we not consider that, to some degree, having a multiple effect and ultimately influencing US agriculture.

KAYTE YOUNG: I have just had discussions before about maybe it would be more appropriate to have this in health and human services, as opposed to tied to agriculture, because then you have these agriculture policies that are affecting maybe the way you might decide on an appropriate food budget for a household.

SHELLYE SUTTLES: Yes, that is a great point. I think there is a variety of different research across different fields and from different advocacy groups, advocating for more of a nutrition focus. I would say as an Ag. Economist, I'm coming from maybe perhaps a different perspective. If I were to think outside the box, I would say we should not restrict the payment to food at all. There should not be a food issue. If people tell me they need cash, I should just give them cash and I let them decide; do they need gas to get to work? I let them decide do they need to pay their rent. I wouldn't even house it in Health and Human Services. I would say you are in need, here is cash. You are your own being, you're smart and intelligent. You decide what needs to happen in your household budget. Don't let me restrict to anything.

KAYTE YOUNG: That does make sense. We're going to pause here for a quick break. I'm speaking with Shellye Suttles. She's an Ag. Economist at the O'Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University. We're talking about the importance of the US Farm Bill. More from our conversation in just a moment.

KAYTE YOUNG: We're back. This is Earth Eats and I'm Kayte Young. Agricultural Economist Shellye Suttles is my guest today. Let's return to our conversation. So where are we right now in terms of what's happening with the Farm Bill?

SHELLYE SUTTLES: That is a great question. [LAUGHS] I would say it sounds like they're in the early stages. So the House and Senate committees are gathering, they're meeting. These open discussions are happening. They're calling people in for testimony on a variety of different sides for both the Food and Farm Safety nets. So conversations are happening. From what I understand, there's some fear that the Republican controlled House will advocate for things that may be untenable or, given the current economic climate, just maybe very difficult for households to deal with. So, I am very curious to see what happens with it, even within the next month.

KAYTE YOUNG: It was so interesting in those early days of the pandemic to see how ready the US Government was to help people. And I just had this thought that maybe that would continue. [LAUGHS] Maybe it was a change in the weather that was going to stay.

SHELLYE SUTTLES: Yes. So at the time I had a project with a food bank in the state and they were saying that it was really the case of have and have-nots. So for those of us who could work remotely, we were home collecting the same salary, or in some cases people were getting these bonus checks that they qualified for but didn't necessarily need. And so they were generous and would make donations to food banks and things of that nature. So a certain portion of the population felt fine. And then there were others who had very public facing positions who perhaps had a chronic disease; they didn't feel comfortable being exposed, had childcare responsibilities. And it just put some portion of the population into an economic spiral. And so I think the Government could do nothing other than step in, perhaps.

KAYTE YOUNG: How do everyday people participate in shaping the Farm Bill?

SHELLYE SUTTLES: As I mentioned, the House and Senate have agricultural committees. I think on each of those websites they ask you to give your feedback and comment. I would definitely recommend, if you've done research yourself; not as a researcher but just as a private citizen; have some thoughts on the subject, understand the pros and cons, definitely reach out to your Representatives and share your opinions so that they understand that there's somebody in the office documenting how residents feel about certain issues. Here in Indiana, there is a lot of conversation around biofuels right now. E15; so transportation fuel that's blended with up to 15% ethanol; did not get renewed by the EPA and so there's some concerns about the environmental aspects of E15 in the summertime. So, my understanding that Mid Western Governors and those Attorney Generals are getting together to discuss how certain aspects of EPA and the Federal Government in general can think about biofuels as a portion of agricultural production in the Mid West. So people are advocating for a variety of different things that are on the table with this Farm Bill. And I would just encourage private citizens to do no different.

KAYTE YOUNG: Do Representatives sometimes have listening sessions in their communities and talk to concerned people?

SHELLYE SUTTLES: Oh yes. I imagine probably most policy makers probably have office hours. I know in Indiana, we have several policy makers that come back to Indiana and hold office hours. And I would encourage you to attend those office hours as well. But I feel like we're also in an online age. Shoot a message.

KAYTE YOUNG: Just to help us understand the importance of it, how do you think the Farm Bill affects the way that we eat, if at all?

SHELLYE SUTTLES: That is a very good question. So I think, given that folks are typically consuming some type of culturally appropriate diet, the Farm Bill may make that diet more expensive or less expensive. In my own personal experience, I think moving from Southern California to Indiana, I had to adjust my diet. Is it the fault of what agriculture is subsidized in the Mid West for what is subsidized in California? I'm not 100% sure. I imagine it is having an impact to some degree. But also when I think about the climate, Southern California is eternal spring. I'm used to wearing shorts on Christmas. You definitely can't do that here. So when we think about what fresh food products are available in the Mid West, it becomes more difficult to have these conversations. Well we should all be eating a fresh bowl of salad all year round. When realistically, we know that at times we'll have to import from overseas, at times we'll have to be making purchases from California and Florida. But I think perhaps people have to advocate for the diet that they're most interested in and think about how they could be more involved at the local and regional level. A portion of my research is also around local and regional food systems. I think a lot is happening in local communities that nowadays the grocery store isn't the sole option of where we can acquire food. There's all sorts of fun and interesting places that we can support. Some on occasion may be price prohibitive. I know there's some cultural issues around who is patronizing the farmers market and does your class or your socio economic status influence whether or not you're engaging in some of these things. But most recently the USDA has developed an Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovation. So there are these local and regional opportunities for people to have a greater influence in what is in their diet, what they're consuming. So I would definitely encourage folks to get involved in what's happening in their community, if they're not being best served by what's in the grocery store.

KAYTE YOUNG: Yes, that was my next question was about Farm Bill policy that can support and encourage the development of more smaller scale farms that have a diversity of crops, versus these large scale commodity corn and soy beans, which is the typical Indiana farming operation. So is the Farm Bill also involved in those kinds of allocations of support for different kinds of farming?

SHELLYE SUTTLES: Yes, so this is something that everyone I think is concerned about to some degree, when we think about who the Farm Bill is supporting with these commodity titles. So typically there are, what you would call, gross income limits. And so you can only be making $900,000 on your farm. But $900,000 is nothing to laugh at. But a farm making over $900,000 has to compete with a small farm that's receiving these larger subsidies more frequently. And so typically they are having to consolidate to remain competitive with farms that are receiving larger subsidies. So if we think about subsidizing small farms, there are going to be consequences to that. And a consequence we've seen over the years is consolidation in the rest of the industry, to be able to compete when a certain subset of farms are receiving very generous subsidies.

KAYTE YOUNG: But are those generous subsidies going to, not just smaller scale commodity farmers, but what about these more specialty crops and fruits and vegetables which get called a specialty crop?

SHELLYE SUTTLES: Yes, so over the years it has really changed. So there's a horticultural title to the Farm Bill now that used to not be the case. And crop insurance is available to many different types of crops now, including specialty crops, which did not exist in the past. There is some historical discussion around whether specialty crop farmers wanted to be included in the commodity programs. They felt that it would be restricting them, putting them in a box to say oh I need to do all these things that USDA wants me to do, when I want to do them my own way. But nonetheless, USDA persisted and these programs are available to specialty crop producers as well. And just one thing to mention about crop insurance. For all farmers it's heavily subsidized, so whether or not you're doing row crops or you're doing specialty crops, the taxpayers pay about 60 per cent of your premiums for crop insurance and the farmer only pays about 40 per cent as a farm operator.

KAYTE YOUNG: So I recently spoke with some folks with Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, and they're focused on confined animal feeding operations and the health and quality of life concerns for people who live in areas where these large scale operations are placed. And in some cases it seemed like an environment justice issue, where folks living nearby didn't really have the power or the voice to really stand up against these large scale operations. And I was wondering if protective policies for ordinary citizens against big Ag, are those kinds of things part of what could get decided in a Farm Bill? Or are those things really decided on a state level? Like those kinds of regulations around [PHONETIC: Kayfoes] or air pollution; that sort of thing.

SHELLYE SUTTLES: Yes, so I would say it depends. When we think about having a Federal Government and a State Government, a lot is happening. So it really depends. When we think about air pollution aspects. We have Clean Air Act, that's controlled by EPA; very different than USDA. So, I think even amongst Federal Agencies, there's components of what is getting regulated and funded across Federal agencies that can become confusing. Especially for people looking to have solutions to these environmental travesties in their neighborhood. So, at times can be difficult to navigate there. And then at the State level, there's state departments of AG and state departments of environment. And so are they working together to deal with some of these issues? At some degree you have maybe four tiers of a bureaucracy to jump through when you are just a group of residents looking to make improvements in your community, so it can become difficult. But I imagine, like the organization you mentioned, there are just so many advocacy groups, so I would just recommend that people reach out to who is in their corner to make sure that they have a broader group of people coming together to advocate for the change they want to see in their community.

KAYTE YOUNG: I guess I was just curious to ask you about it because it feels like the kind of issue that a lot of people, especially listeners to this show, get really upset about. And I always try to think about like well what's the larger system and you can look at local levels, you can look at state level, but I always just think well, if there was some kind of policy at the Federal level then you wouldn't have to have all these other little tiny fights, if this is the standard, you can't do this,.

SHELLYE SUTTLES: Yes, and then a handful of states decide to sue the Federal Government for [UNSURE OF WORD] and say you shouldn't be doing that. [LAUGHS] States rights.

KAYTE YOUNG: Yes, so that's me misunderstanding how the local system really works too; why don't they pass a law? [LAUGHS] Then we don't have to keep doing this. So yes, I see what you're saying, it's not that straightforward and I'm sure there are a lot of agriculture policies that do get handled at the state level.

SHELLYE SUTTLES: And I think states are so different. Confined animal feeding that's happening in California looks different than is happening in Iowa, looks different than what's happening in North Carolina. The livestock is different, the community surrounding are different. The property value in Carolina and nearby; it's a different price. So, I think so many things are different. I would definitely recommend that folks definitely understand what's happening at the state level. Likely there is some Federal regulation, but I would assume that states are considering these issues and want to advocate for, all of their stakeholders and residents.

KAYTE YOUNG: One of the issues that Shellye Suttles has researched is agriculture production that's used for biofuels; ethanol in particular.

SHELLYE SUTTLES: The Trump Administration really didn't enforce renewable fuel standard and so now there's a bit of chaos. And agriculture definitely plays a role as it supplies biofuels and bio power.

KAYTE YOUNG: I think that's definitely something that people don't really think about when it comes to crops; is they really just think that they're for food and they don't usually think about the energy component.

SHELLYE SUTTLES: Yes and I talk to students about this in my Food Policy class. I think US has such an interesting history with ethanol. So ethanol has been banned twice in the history of the United States. So during the Civil War, they taxed it to death in order to pay for the Civil War. At that point, ethanol became so expensive it couldn't compete with kerosene and fell out of favor. And then again with the prohibition ban, ethanol is essentially alcohol, like anything else. We ban ethanol. So no research and development. So, we're really playing catch up from 1979 with the Carter Administration saying oh, we should think about this thing we keep taxing and banning in the last 100 years. So this is the ethanol market we have today. It's heavily based on first generation biofuels and corn. But I think, as long as we keep an open mind about the potential of biofuels and renewable energy as agriculture being a production source of that, I think it could be interesting.

KAYTE YOUNG: What did you say earlier about biofuels and summertime?

SHELLYE SUTTLES: In the Mid West it's corn and soybean, so ethanol is an important market in Midwestern agriculture and transportation fuel. And so the EPA is supposed to make a decision about E15: transportation fuel that's blended with up to 15% ethanol. And the reason that EPA hasn't made a decision yet is that they feel that there are concerns about ethanol in the summertime; that it can increase the levels of smog. And so I think their scientists and researchers are going back and forth. But they're soon to be past the rule making deadline so there is some concern amongst Midwestern policy makers and Governors.

KAYTE YOUNG: Is it just the Mid West or is it anywhere where it gets warm?

SHELLYE SUTTLES: Yeah. So I think in terms of the source of the production.

KAYTE YOUNG: Oh, I see, I see.

SHELLYE SUTTLES: So who is the source of the production of the ethanol? It's corn growers in the Mid West. And so they have some interest that there be a market for the corn product during the summertime as well.

KAYTE YOUNG: And did we talk about all of the things that you feel are currently going on with the Farm Bill?

SHELLYE SUTTLES: Yes. I think so. I think when that SNAP figure came out from CBO.


SHELLYE SUTTLES: The Congressional Budget Office that made an estimate about the cost of the next Farm Bill and how much SNAP would be out of that cost.

KAYTE YOUNG: Do you just feel like that number is really going to scare people?

SHELLYE SUTTLES: Unfortunately so. Despite the fact that they know their neighbor is in need, I think this figure is so high. And when I talk to my students, us thinking about the now and the later. When we think about what should we pay for now and what can we afford now. What are we limiting future generations for. These are hard questions. I don't have the answers definitely, but these are things that policy makers are struggling with. So that one point two trillion dollar price tag now when people are struggling; how will we pay for it? Will taxes change? Things of that nature, versus well, if we, finance it in some way and then future generations can sort it out.

KAYTE YOUNG: I just think about this in terms of taking care of people; that it's so much less costly to help people with their rent than it is to deal with a massive homeless population. It's so much easier to help people get the food they need than to deal with all of the health crises that happen when people don't have enough to eat. It just it feels like the cost down the road, or the emergency down the road could be prevented by just taking care.

SHELLYE SUTTLES: Yes, and we have a mix of things beyond the Farm Bill that US Government spends money on. Well beyond the Farm Bill's reach, we're spending money on defense, we're spending money on education, we're spending money on health and human services. There are so many things. So, just like a household has to balance their budget or decide what to put on the credit card, Congress is doing that for us. So we have to decide do we like what they've done with their budget.

KAYTE YOUNG: Yes, these are complex issues and they're not all around food. I just want to thank you so much for coming in and talking with me.

SHELLYE SUTTLES: No, thank you for having me. I'm super excited to check out all the recipes on your website. They look so tasty.

KAYTE YOUNG: Great. Well, thanks again. I really appreciate it.

SHELLYE SUTTLES: Oh, thank you.

KAYTE YOUNG: That was Doctor Shellye Suttles. She's an Agricultural Economist and an Assistant Professor at the O'Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University. We spoke in early March of 2023. For more information and links to resources about the Farm Bill and how to make your voice heard during this important period, visit our website

KAYTE YOUNG: Tense relations between China and the US are trickling down into agriculture and more scrutiny into who owns farmland. It became a hot topic in part after the US Air Force determined that a proposed corn mill in North Dakota would be a significant national security threat. Now there are proposals restricting foreign ownership of farmland making their way through Congress and many state legislatures, including Indiana. Harvest Public Media's Eva Tesfaye reports.

EVA TESFAYE: Fufeng USA, a subsidiary of a Chinese company purchased land near Grand Forks, North Dakota close to a US Air Force Base. North Dakota's two US Senators asked for the Air Force to weigh in. And shortly after the city council voted to stop the project. Senator Kevin Cramer says it was a clear move, given current US China relations.

SENATOR KEVIN CRAMER: Just within hours or days of the Air Force letter arriving, China had a spy balloon 55,000 feet above Montana

EVA TESFAYE: That spy balloon got a lot of attention.

NEWS REPORTER: A large Chinese spy balloon spotted over the United States.

NEWS REPORTER: At first, Chinese spy balloon was seen flying over parts of the Kansas City area today.

NEWS REPORTER: Chinese spy balloon over American airspace.

EVA TESFAYE: That spy balloon and the eventual rejection of the corn mill shined a spotlight on Chinese ownership of American farmland. Senator Cramer, a Republican, is now co-sponsoring two Federal Bills. Both would limit foreign ownership by giving the US Department of Agriculture more input into potential land purchases. He says it's a big issue for Republicans and Democrats.

SENATOR KEVIN CRAMER: There's such an overwhelming concern about China's role in America and their intentions, that we will get something passed in a bipartisan [UNSURE OF WORD] way.

EVA TESFAYE: According to USDA data, foreign holdings of US farmland increased by an average of about two million acres a year from 2015 to 2021. But the data also shows that China owns less than one per cent of foreign owned land. Although experts say there are issues with how that data is collected. It's not just Federal law makers who want to crack down. There have been a flurry of bills in State legislatures, including most Mid Western states.

MICAH BROWN: There are so many proposals, it's insane.

EVA TESFAYE: Micah Brown is a Staff Attorney at the National Agricultural Law Center and has been keeping track of the laws and bills in each state. He says that it's an issue that has come up time and time again since colonization. And the US has hit another political flash point now.

MICAH BROWN: Especially in 2023 with all these proposals, the proponents of these bills, the lawmakers that are proposing these bills are really saying the reason is national security.

EVA TESFAYE: Some states are even reversing course. Just ten years ago, Missouri moved to allow up to one per cent foreign ownership of its farmland. That was just ahead of a Chinese company buying out Smithfield Foods; a large pork producer and food processing company. Bill Eigel, a Missouri State Senator, is sponsoring one of the 16 bills moving to restrict foreign ownership again. The Republican says food security is the main issue.

BILL EIGEL: I don't want China to own our ground. I honestly don't want European countries to be able to buy our ground because that's American ground that is feeding our population and we need to maintain that sovereignty.

EVA TESFAYE: Keeping land in the hands of US farmers is a major problem, according to Francine Miller, an Attorney at Vermont Law and Graduate School. But she says the national attention on Chinese ownership of agricultural land is taking away from the fact that investors in general are driving up farmland prices.

FRANCINE MILLER: The focus on this issue obscures the issues that many of us are trying to work on on improving land access for beginning and people of color farmers and people who have been denied access to land in America.

EVA TESFAYE: The current geopolitical situation, including the war in Ukraine and relationships with China and Russia, is putting a spotlight on foreign influence over US resources. For Harvest Public Media, I'm Eva Tesfaye.

KAYTE YOUNG: Harvest Public Media is a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Mid West and Great Plains. That's it for our show this week. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next time.

DANIELLA RICHARDON: Earth Eats is produced and edited by Kayte Young with help from Eobon Binder, Alex Chambers, Mark Chilla, Toby Foster, Abraham Hill, Samantha Shemenauer, Payton Whaley, Harvest Public Media and me, Daniella Richardson.

KAYTE YOUNG: Special thanks this week to Shellye Suttles.

DANIELLA RICHARDON: Our theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey. Additional music on the show comes to us from the artists at Universal Production Music. Our Executive Producer is John Bailey.

small child stocking a shelf in a food pantry with canned goods

The Emergency Food Assistance Program, or TEFAP, supplies food banks and food pantries with USDA food. The budget for this program is included in the Farm Bill. (Kayte Young/WFIU)

“In terms of what is being discussed right now, I would say the $1.2 trillion dollar elephant in the room is SNAP. And so, the 2023 Farm Bill is estimated to be the most expensive farm bill in US history, over the course of 10 years worth of outlays.”

This week on the show we’re talking about the importance of the upcoming Farm Bill.  Our guest is Shellye Suttles. She is an agriculture economist and assistant professor at the O’Neill School for Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University.

Harvest Public Media shares a story about midwestern states, sparked by worries over China, want to limit who can buy land. 

Mentioned on this episode:

US Farm Bill

Interview with Megan Sandel on All Things Considered, NPR

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

Thrifty Food Plan

Earth Eats episode featuring Angela Babb talking about the Thrifty Food Plan.


Music on this Episode

The Earth Eats theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey.

Additional music on this episode from the artists at Universal Production Music.

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