Farmer, Former White House Insider Offers Thoughts on Farm Bill

Ray Starling wrote an article for the winter issue of Ag Innovator on the history of the Farm Bill and what shortline manufacturers can expect from this one. Enjoy these excerpts, and see the story in its entirety at

Several months ago, I penned an article for members that referenced the shrinking number of farmers and “aggies” in the U.S. House and Senate. Perhaps nothing in that piece was a surprise, given that we all frequently lament that there are fewer and fewer farmers in the population overall. It nonetheless makes those of us who earn a living from agriculture wince.

We see our shrinking numbers as a sign of shrinking influence, even though our industry maintains its place as a key employer in over half the states.
It is against that backdrop that I want to briefly mention the drafting and development of the most significant piece of farm legislation in 20 years—the 2023 Farm Bill. The famous “field hearings” have begun (keep an eye on whether any occur in a field anywhere), so the conversation around the bill likely will follow.

Before you say getting a farm bill in this political environment will be impossible, consider history. Farm bills have never been easy. The first one is still the most famous—the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933. It was a part of newly minted President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs.

The Act bribed farmers into limiting production across seven key commodities, with the ultimate hope that lower production levels would raise the market value and provide farmers with a return much closer to what economists at the time called “parity.” That first farm bill, and the very concept of a farm bill generally, faced a near-death experience, even as the Great Depression raged.

Fast forward to 1973, when the farm bill first became the shotgun wedding between farm programs and food stamps that it is today. The now late Senator Bob Dole, from Kansas, correctly reasoned back then that he could increase the likelihood of passing the farm bill if it contained something for both rural members of Congress, and their more urban counterparts.

This gave birth to the arranged marriage between the food stamps part of the federal government’s food assistance program and its five-year cycle farm aid package. The matrimony has lasted since then, but as recent farm bill cycles have revealed, significant counseling has been required to avoid a divorce.

We are now on our eighteenth farm bill, the most recent of which is the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018.

While it may now be understood that farm bills are a permissible way for the federal government to regulate farming and aid the farm economy, the fault lines over which programs deserve funding and which ones don’t remain.

In my view, the writing of the 2023 Farm Bill will test the arranged marriage concept even further. Many of the more conservative members of Congress question both the farm aid and food assistance parts of the legislation, even though many of them hail from rural districts and might therefore be expected to view farm aid as the sugar that makes the medicine go down. Moreover, even many rural districts are not viewed as farm dependent as they once were. (I believe is a statistical slight of hand, but that will be a topic for another day.)

Congressional progressives question why food assistance programs are not already bigger and view Title I of the legislation—the core commodity support programs—skeptically, given that it supports widely traded non-perishable crops. They are more apt to hear the critics who suggest it is these crops that have contributed to our non-communicable disease epidemics (diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity generally).

Add in that the farm bill provides a forum for elected officials to coerce, incent, or regulate activity believed to mitigate climate change, and you can see how the conversation will get sticky fast.

So, what does an equipment manufacturer need to know about all of this?

Mainly that the process will begin and lumber forward. Even the most pessimistic observer would admit that Congress does not want to fail to enact a farm bill. Deadlines—however extendable they may be—get attention. Neither party wants to be responsible for farm and food assistance program uncertainty infinitum.

Second, massive shifts in farm policy are rare. Changes are typically more incremental (“iterative” if you want to sound smart).

Finally, jurisdictional lines keep many of our toughest problems out of the farm bill debate. Do not expect the legislation to directly address farm labor woes, provide clarity on EPA jurisdiction, or get too far into issues like ethanol or trade policy. There are other deadlines for all of those. And other committees. And other lobbyists and trade associations galore.

Now is the time to think about what policies in the 2023 Farm Bill will impact manufacturers and how this community can position itself to influence them.

Can the case be made that supply chain vulnerabilities could be addressed in the bill? After all, challenges felt by equipment manufacturers are quickly felt by farmers and ultimately in the food supply.

Could the legislation better support the development of talent and skill that is consistently in short supply for this sector? Are there issues that need more attention for which you could call for a study or deeper analysis that might develop the conversation further? Consider these questions as the farm bill discussions get underway.

Ray Starling has been the general counsel for a state department of agriculture, a staffer on the U.S. Senate Ag Committee, and Chief of Staff to a U.S. senator. He joined the White House in 2017 as special assistant to the president for agricultural policy. In 2018, he became chief of staff for USDA’s Sonny Perdue. Today he is as general counsel to North Carolina’s Chamber of Commerce and involved with the family’s farm.