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Congressional Backlog Ramifications For The New Farm Bill

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Quotes from Heidi Heitkamp, Former U.S. Senator, Attorney General, and Tax Commissioner for North Dakota; alliantgroup Director of Agriculture

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The House of Representatives was without a Speaker for 21 days, and so there is now a significant backlog of legislative business left to be addressed.

It is not yet clear how much can be accomplished given the atmosphere of intra- and inter-party conflict that still prevails. The Farm Bill is one of the many pieces of standard congressional business that has been on hold, but when the funding of the entire government needs to be at least extended, and when responses are required for multiple international conflicts, it seems likely that there could be delays.

For decades the Farm Bill has been an omnibus package of laws about new and existing agriculture or nutrition programs (e.g. SNAP). If congress is not able to draft and pass a new Farm Bill before the end of the year, they may instead pass an extension of the current bill and deal with it in 2024. If the current law lapses without an extension, the Farm Bill would actually revert to what it was in the 1940s because technically each new farm bill is an additional amendment to one old version. Ironically that would be a flashback to the decade in which the two likely 2024 presidential nominees were born.

The Farm Bill tends to be something with bipartisan support although there are Republicans that are not supportive of government aid programs like SNAP even though that expense amounts to only $6/day of benefits to poor families. Many USDA conservation programs that support specific desirable farming practices are funded through the farm bill, but those are not typically controversial. There are practical, political, and logistic reasons to combine most farming-related laws and programs in one big Farm Bill. This is because even when there is a functioning government there are only so many bills/year that can be fully considered one at a time.

Heidi Heitkamp was a U.S. Senator for North Dakota and is now with business consultancy alliantgroup. Heitkamp says that farm-linked congressional leaders are optimistic that there will at least be an extension of the existing bill passed before the end of the year, and they have been working in the background to hammer out the details for eventual passage of a newly drafted Farm bill.

There are some unique elements being considered for inclusion in the new Farm Bill. One is the possibility of incorporating sustained funding for certain Climate-Smart Commodity and Climate mitigation programs that were part of the Inflation Reduction Act of 2020. That bill only set up funding for five years and sooner or later a more sustained option would be desirable.

There is an example of bipartisan legislation that was introduced earlier this year by Representatives Jimmy Panetta, a Democrat from California, and Jim Baird, an Indiana Republican, which calls for a definition and appropriate regulation for a category of agricultural products called biostimulants.

This biostimulant act is being discussed under the Farm Bill umbrella and so its implementation hangs in the balance. Biostimulants are a diverse category of products that can help crops to grow more vigorously, better utilize available nutrients, and cope with environmental stresses as they grow and approach harvest.

One example of a plant biostimulant that has been on the market for some time is an extract of the marine seaweed species Ascophyllum nodosum produced by the company Acadian Plant Health in Canada. It helps crops deal with stresses of various types. Its effects are complex but include beneficial changes in the soil microbiome. Other biostimulants include humic and fulvic acid, protein hydrolysates, phosphites and certain beneficial microbes.

These products don’t have any direct effects on crop pests or diseases, so it does not make sense to regulate these products under the rigorous FIFRA standards by which true pesticides are scrutinized. They are also not “plant growth regulators,” which is another category of products that has to meet full EPA standards. Experts at the EPA are supportive of the idea that it isn’t their job to regulate biostimulants.

On the other hand, these biostimulant products are not traditional fertilizers either and don’t really fit under the existing regulatory framework designed for those products which are regulated on a state-by-state basis. There is broad consensus among the State fertilizer regulators (members of AAPFCO) that these products need a different kind of oversight, and that includes states like California and New York that often have their own stricter standards. A model bill has been drafted that paves the way for plant biostimulants and other beneficial substances to be regulated as a new type of fertilizing material at the state level.

The EU, India, Brazil and China have processes underway to set up specific regulatory frameworks for bio stimulants, so the United States is a bit behind the curve on this topic. With the AAPFCO model bill paving the way for state regulation and registration and the Plant Biostimulant Act calling for a Federal definition of plant biostimulants and their exclusion from FIFRA pesticide regulation, the hope is that a clearly defined regulatory pathway to the US market will encourage more private sector investment in the development of such products. That would be a very favorable outcome from a farmer perspective and would likely help with the challenges that agriculture now faces because of climate change.

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Heidi Heitkamp

Heidi Heitkamp represented North Dakota from 2013 to 2019 and was the first woman ever elected to represent the state as a U.S. Senator. Heitkamp has demonstrated her passion for economic development by spearheading the strategic development of our country’s renewable energies and the passage of two long-term, comprehensive Farm Bills. She was also on the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, as well as the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs. Heidi’s broad background in public service will surely enhance our ability to advise on how we can best serve our clients across a variety of industries.