Skip to main content

Field to Table: A Farm Bill Primer

With the current farm bill set to expire on Sept. 30, NCSL is working to safeguard state priorities as the 2023 version is drafted.

By Kristen Hildreth and Lauren Kallins  |  April 21, 2023

The federal farm bill is an omnibus, multiyear law that sets the stage for the nation’s food and farm systems. It includes multiple titles, or sections, that intersect policy areas including conservation, rural energy development, nutrition assistance and aid to new and beginning farmers and ranchers.

The current bill, which was enacted in 2018, is set to expire on Sept. 30. With Congress holding hearings to determine stakeholder priorities, NCSL offers some background on this vital legislation and a summary of the state priorities the organization is working to safeguard as the 2023 version is drafted. "

Farm Bill Basics

The farm bill funds crop insurance, crop subsidies and research to assist food production and sustainable agricultural practices. It also pays for food assistance programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which supports nearly 42 million Americans. More from NCSL:

Born in an Epic Drought

Enacted as part of the New Deal in 1933, the inaugural farm bill was a response to the effects of World War I, the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl on the commodities market and U.S. agriculture. That initial legislation, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, introduced innovative programs to help growers of staple commodities such as corn, cotton, milk, rice and wheat reduce surplus and elevate crop prices.

Subsequent versions of the bill built on those initial provisions, adding soil conversation efforts to offset escalating erosion and authorizing funds for risk management tools such as federal crop insurance, among other important initiatives. In 1973, the Agriculture and Consumer Protection Act expanded the scope of the farm bill by including funding for food assistance programs.

The 2018 farm bill contained 12 titles and authorized more than $428 billion for various programs under the purview of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The titles encompassed modifications to farm commodity programs; expanded crop insurance; amendments to existing conservation programs; reauthorization and revision of nutrition assistance; and extended funding authority for a variety of USDA discretionary programs.

Nutrition assistance, which includes at least eight major programs, was the single largest outlay, accounting for about 75% of expenditures, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service. Nutrition assistance and the other top three titles—crop insurance, commodities and conservation—together constituted 99% of all farm bill expenditures.

On NCSL’s Agenda

NCSL’s priorities for the upcoming 2023 farm bill include:

  • Maintaining SNAP funding levels, structure and eligibility: The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, provides vital assistance to 42 million low-income individuals and families. Having a stable and sufficiently funded SNAP program that can assist all who are eligible and respond to rising food costs is important to those administering benefits across the country. NCSL supports stable funding and policies that improve access to and the affordability of nutritious food, and opposes costly administrative burdens or unfunded mandates that would diminish state flexibility in SNAP administration. NCSL supports the objectives of self-sufficiency promoted by the SNAP Employment and Training program, as well as the flexibility states have to seek waivers of the three-month time limit for able-bodied adults without dependents in areas impacted by high unemployment.
  • Supporting conservation and forest management programs: Protecting the nation’s most sensitive ecosystems starts with the efforts of farmers, ranchers and foresters. NCSL supports reauthorizing voluntary conservation and forest management programs, such as the Conservation Reserve Program, to protect ecosystems and ensure the resilience of farmers, ranchers and foresters. Congressional land policies should be developed in close coordination with states, which are better positioned to manage the intricacies of the nation’s lands.
  • Preserving funding for research and development initiatives: Agricultural research and extension programs play a crucial role in enhancing the efficiency, innovation and productivity of the nation’s farmers and ranchers. NCSL urges adequate support for land grant institutions and research on effective, sustainable methods for pest and disease control, which is crucial for the global competitiveness of U.S. agriculture.
  • Amending the federal definition of industrial hemp: NCSL supports increasing the permissible total THC concentration of industrial hemp to 1% or less. Raising the THC limit would provide farmers with greater confidence in the viability of their crops.
  • Supporting an agriculture workforce to sustain critical food supply chains: The Census of Agriculture reveals an aging agricultural workforce, yet first-generation farmers face obstacles such as access to education, land and financing. NCSL supports a collaborative state-federal approach to aid new and beginning farmers, including using federal tax incentives to support state-based development and associated loan programs and changes to the IRS code to decrease borrowing costs for qualifying farmers.
  • Catalyzing rural economic development and infrastructure growth: NCSL supports programs that leverage existing institutions to encourage balanced and sustainable growth in rural America. Such programs should help rural communities engage in strategic planning that ushers in technological innovation and leads to increased investment in infrastructure and job opportunities. Expanding broadband infrastructure is crucial for unlocking rural economic potential, promoting business growth, global competitiveness and improving access to health care and education.

Farm bill programs strengthen the economy, ensure fair food prices and adequate food supply, and protect the nation’s key agricultural resources. NCSL stands ready to work with Congress toward the passage of the nation’s 19th farm bill.

Stay tuned for future articles on the farm bill titles and what they may mean for states.

Kristen Hildreth is a senior legislative director in NCSL’s State-Federal Program.

Lauren Kallins is the legislative director for health and human services in NCSL’s State-Federal Program.

  • Contact NCSL

  • For more information on this topic, use this form to reach NCSL staff.