2018 Farm Bill: Summary and Impact

Farm with red barn.

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The Farm Bill is a package of legislation including various initiatives and funds targeted at the agricultural industry. Also known as the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, the Farm Bill was enacted on December 20, 2018 by former President Donald Trump.

Every five to six years, a farm bill is passed to update and improve on past agricultural provisioning. Expiring in 2023, the 2018 Farm Bill modified the structure of farm commodity support, expanded crop insurance coverage, amended conservation programs, reauthorized and revised nutrition assistance (such as SNAP), and extended funding to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs.

Notably, the 2018 Farm Bill removed hemp from the list of controlled substances, legalizing it as a crop while also implementing policies for its production. While this is a groundbreaking decision that has led to more farmers pursuing hemp crops, the Farm Bill was also lacking in several ways in regards to food access, support for farmers, and conservation efforts.

Farm Bill Facts

  • The 2018 Farm Bill covers food and nutrition programs (like SNAP), aid for farmers, and conservation efforts.
  • It succeeded the Agricultural Act of 2014 (P.L. 113-79) and is set to expire in 2023.
  • The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that the total cost of the mandatory programs in the farm bill is $428 billion over a five-year duration and $867 billion over 10 years.
  • The 2018 Farm Bill is a baseline bill, meaning that the amount of spending provided for programs did not change from the 2014 bill.
  • U.S. farmers and ranchers have experienced a 50% drop in net farm income since 2013.

Farm Bill Summary

The Farm Bill encompasses 12 titles with various programs in each title. The laws set out in these titles are interpreted and implemented by the USDA. The titles are Commodities, Conservation, Trade, Nutrition, Credit, Rural Development, Research Extension and Related Measures, Forestry, Energy, Horticulture, Crop Insurance, and Miscellaneous (including other programs and funding for items like livestock and poultry disease preparedness and animal health; also programs for beginning farmers, ranchers, and limited-resource and socially disadvantaged farmers).

While the Farm Bill provides funding for all 12 titles, the Big Four that are allocated 99% of the bill's budget include Crop Insurance, Commodities, Conservation, and Nutrition. The Crop Insurance Title (XI) improves on the permanently authorized federal crop insurance program that subsidized policies to farmers to protect against losses in yield, crop revenue, or whole farm revenue. The Commodities Title (I) provides payments when crop prices or revenues decline for major commodity crops like wheat, corn, soybeans, peanuts, and rice. It also involves disaster programs to help livestock and tree fruit producers manage losses due to natural disasters and provides marginal coverage for dairy and marketing quotas, minimum price guarantees, and import barriers for sugar.

The Conservation Title (II) gives assistance to agricultural producers to address environmental resource concerns on private land through land retirement, conservation easements, working lands assistance, and partnership opportunities. The Nutrition Title (IV) provides nutrition assistance for low-income households through programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) and The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). Out of the Big Four, the Nutrition Title is allocated the most money for food assistance programs.

Cows grazing in an open pasture.

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Environmental Protections

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is a land conservation program run by the Farm Service Agency. CRP encourages farmers to enroll in the program and agree to halt agricultural production on environmentally sensitive land and plant species that will improve the land in exchange for an annual rental payment. For the first time in several years, the number of acres involved in the program increased in this Farm Bill, from 24 to 27 million.

While the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) was at risk for termination, the Farm Bill maintained the program but decreased its funding. CSP assists farmers who want to improve their conservation efforts. It helps producers maintain and improve their existing conservation systems while adopting more conservation activities. CSP participants earn payments based on their conservation performance with higher performance leading to larger payments. Less funding risks the possibility of adding and renewing contracts for producers interested in the program while decreasing the amount of conservation achieved through CSP. 

Notably, the Farm Bill lacked research funding for climate change or plant breeding. Also, while the Conservation Title did not see cuts in funding overall, the amount allocated to this area has leveled off in recent years despite a growing and urgent need to develop conservation programs amidst a climate crisis.

As part of the Nutrition Title, the Bill established the Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Forms of Production, which offers funding to institute pilot committees focused on creating community compost and food waste reduction programs in the urban setting. Run by the USDA, Community Compost, and Food Waste Reduction (CCFWR) pilot projects opened to applications from local governments in May of 2021.

Support for Farmers

The decrease in funding for CSP prevented a greater number of new farmers from participating in the conservation program. In addition, no further money was allocated specifically for socially disadvantaged and new farmers, and the Farm Bill failed to remove loopholes that benefit wealthy factories and mega-farms.

The loopholes help large, wealthy farms capitalize on commodity and crop insurance subsidies and promote consolidations in agriculture which prevents smaller, more local farms from maintaining an adequate revenue. The 2018 Farm Bill expanded the definition of family to include first cousins, nieces, and nephews which impacted adjusted gross income limits, allowing more people to qualify for taxpayer-funded subsidies.

However, the Farm Bill also expanded who qualifies for Direct Farm Ownership loans based on the required three years of farming experience. Now, different experiences can count towards qualifying for the loan including an honorable discharge from the armed forces, successful repayment of a youth loan, one year of experience as a farm laborer, and significant business management experience. The loan limit increased from $300,000 to $600,000 and the Guaranteed Farm Ownership loan limit increased from $1,429,000 to $1,750,000. The scope of issues warranting the USDA Agricultural Mediation Program expanded to include the National Organic Program, which certifies and enforces farms to national organic standards.

Food Security

The 2018 Farm Bill made a few changes to the Nutrition Title which are worth mentioning. It took the preexisting Value-Added Producer Grant program and Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program and combined them to form the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program (FMPP). FMPP accepts applications for funding projects that develop and expand producer-to-consumer markets to help increase access to and availability of local and regional produce.

In 2020, 49 grants were distributed for a total of almost $13.5 million awarded across the U.S. Many projects that were funded involved improving access to nutritional food among socially disadvantaged communities and adopting more sustainable production practices. For example, the Davies Farm Bus Project: Breaking Down Barriers to Food Access with a Mobile Farmers Market increased food access to low-income, low-access communities in Georgia. Also, the Strengthening Agro-Marketing and Agro-tourism in Puerto Rico project used the funding to increase the urban farming and agro-tourism activities across Puerto Rico using a model proposed by the Center for Development of Sustainable Studies (CEDES) of the Universidad Ana G. Méndez, Cupey Campus.

Some projects also focused on improving the markets' communication and media tools to better educate the community about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Funding for SNAP was extended in 2018 and the bill authorized farmers markets to use an individual electronic benefits transfer device for accepting SNAP benefits at multiple locations.

When the Farm Bill was first enacted in 2018, the number of people participating in SNAP declined by about 16% between 2013 and 2018. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of people participating increased by 11%. Even prior to the pandemic, reports showed that many people receiving SNAP benefits were still food insecure. When SNAP benefits run out, many families and individuals are left without assistance.

Hemp farm.


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Current Status

Many of the programs included in the Farm Bill were implemented or updated in 2019. For example, CRP began accepting new applications on June 3, 2019, and offered a one-year extension to existing CRP participants who have expiring CRP contracts of 14 years or less. Enrollment for the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) agreements was also reopened.

For Title V Credit, the Farm Service Agency amended loan limits which were authorized by the 2018 Farm Bill, included an increase to $600,000 for direct loans and $1,750,000 for guaranteed loans.

Notably, several developments were put into action under the Horticulture Title (X) for the production and sale of hemp. The Farm Bill streamlined the production of hemp policies to make it easier for farmers to pursue this crop. CBD is extracted from hemp, making this crop a strong emerging market. Many farmers began growing hemp in 2019 but competition from large, commercial hemp farms made it difficult for small farms to turn a profit despite developments in the USDA like the Plant Variety Protection Office starting to accept applications for seed-propagated hemp for plant variety protection (April 24, 2019).    

Hemp and the Farm Bill

The Farm Bill facilitated the cultivation, processing, and marketing of industrial commercial hemp in the U.S. as long as it does not contain more than 0.3% of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol—the main psychoactive chemical in marijuana. The bill also mandated a new hemp program under the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 which called for a regulatory framework for hemp production, expanded the statutory definition of hemp, and expanded eligibility of who can produce hemp to include tribes and territories. Producers are required to obtain a USDA license prior to production. The bill allowed for hemp producers to participate in federal crop insurance and research and development programs.

The emergent state of climate change at the time of the bill's passing and now warranted stronger environmental action from this Farm Bill. However, conservation programs remained intact with no large decreases in funding, which was considered somewhat of a victory. Given the outlook of future programs needed as the climate crisis worsens, conservation programs are grossly underfunded, which should be a priority for the next bill. The laws seem to favor large, wealthy, industrial farms over small, local producers, which has an impact on food access, the environment, and the livelihood of small farmers.

The 2023 Farm Bill should focus on conservation efforts, expanding local production and food access, and pursue a closed-loop agriculture network as a security safeguard.