A(nother) Weird Year in Washington

Article by John Duff

For farm policy wonks both young and old, 2023 was one for the record books. For a year that didn’t have a farm bill, there couldn’t have been many more consequential, challenging or downright weird situations.

Most of the year’s happenings weren’t helpful for sorghum farmers. The ousting of Congressman Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and the punting of the farm bill weren’t bullish events—for lawmakers’ ability to advance profarmer legislation nor for farmers’ pocketbooks. These discouraging events aside, 2023 did see groundwork laid for several potentially historic opportunities for farmers in the sustainability space. While time will tell whether or not these opportunities can be fully realized, the year is ending with some reason for optimism.

After enduring 15 rounds of voting to become speaker in January, Congressman McCarthy was removed as speaker in a 216-210 vote on Oct. 3. Eight members of the Republican Party joined all 208 House Democrats in the historic motion to vacate, and Republicans quickly pivoted to the search for a new speaker. By the end of the saga, the House had been without a leader for 21 days, 21 hours and nine minutes, during which time four candidates had been considered, and four additional speaker votes had been held. The candidate who was ultimately elected speaker was Congressman Mike Johnson (R-LA).

Prior to his election, Speaker Johnson had a reputation for being a mild-mannered, respected member of Congress, which helped lead to his unanimous support from Republicans on the House floor. That unity after such a fractious process combined with his devout Chrisitan faith seems to have helped heal a few of the wounds inflicted by Republicans upon themselves during the process of removing and reinstalling a speaker. Time will tell whether cooler heads will prevail long-term, though that will be challenging with another extremely acrimonious presidential election on the horizon in the new year.

As demoralizing as that situation was, sorghum farmers also spent 2023 frustrated with the farm bill process and the implementation of disaster legislation. The Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018 was signed into law on Dec. 20, 2018, and expired on Sept. 30 of this year. Lawmakers responded to this expiration in November by passing a one-year extension of the 2018 Bill, which the four principals (majority and minority agricultural committee leaders in each chamber of Congress) said was in no way a substitute for passing a five-year farm bill. In the same statement, the four also expressed their commitment to working together to pass a five-year bill in 2024, a sentiment shared by virtually all of the ag sector.

But will 2024 see a farm bill? With the issues facing Congress, presidential politics already underway, and presidential primaries beginning in January, it’s hard to see a path forward unless lawmakers work quickly, enacting a new law before primary season reaches a crescendo in March. For all of U.S. agriculture, doing nothing or letting the presidential race bring the farm bill process to a standstill isn’t an option.

With sorghum farmers in 2022 harvesting their smallest crop since 1944 and the Emergency Relief Program (ERP) intended to address the situation seeing a botched rollout, the financial certainty the farm bill helps to provide through the commodity and crop insurance titles is badly needed across the Sorghum Belt. In the short term (and at the very least), changes must be made to ERP as the current methodology punishes normal-sized family operations in the midst of one of the worst financial environments in decades.

All this said, there is positive news in the sustainability space for sorghum farmers. While there are risks, with many regulated program rules still unwritten, sorghum farmers are competitively positioned to make an impact in this area. This calendar year saw the number of options for farmers to monetize sustainability approaches grow dramatically—and away from one-size-fits-all programs focused myopically on carbon and requiring practices only a few farmers are capable of adopting.

With its budget enlarged from $4.5 billion to $8.5 billion, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) on Nov. 1 awarded 81 Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) grants totaling more than $1 billion. The diversity of projects funded was incredible, with projects from nutrient management to precision irrigation receiving dollars. While carbon and cover crops certainly received their fair share of funding, they weren’t the centerpiece as they have been in the past. This is good news for farmers in the Sorghum Belt, where practices like cover crops are a distant third place (if that) behind conservation tillage and rotation with wheat as the most important sustainability practices.

In addition to these opportunities, Section 45Z of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) will effectively enact a low carbon fuel standard via the tax code, with a tax credit worth a maximum of $1 per gallon of ethanol, or roughly $2.85 per bushel. The rulemaking for such a sweeping effort has been a protracted process over much of the year and remains unconcluded. Once the program is in place, though, agriculture will likely reap the benefit of the head start on data collection because significant information already exists to show the positive impact sorghum farming practices have on the GHG emissions of ethanol. This will ultimately help capture the value of the tax credit at the farm level.

From the removal of the House Speaker to a farm bill that wasn’t, 2023 had plenty of reasons for farmers to be discouraged. However, the sustainability space provided a great antidote, and barring unforeseen events in rulemaking, Section 45Z could be one of the most consequential public policies in history for sorghum farmers. As always, NSP is in DC so its members don’t have to be, and in 2024, ensuring this potential becomes reality will be a key priority along with continuing to advocate for a new farm bill, the availability of crop protection technologies and other policies that directly impact farmers’ operations.


This story originally appeared in the Winter 2024 Special Edition of Sorghum Grower magazine.