Center’s farm bill priorities focus on benefits for rural America

Farm and Food

Passed approximately every five years by Congress, the farm bill is a package of legislation covering many topics that affect rural communities. From conservation programs for farmers to healthy food access for low-income families, as well as beginning farmer training and support for rural small businesses, the farm bill sets the stage for the nation’s food and farm systems.

Kate Hansen, senior policy associate with the Center for Rural Affairs, recently joined host Michael Levin-Epstein on the Rural Matters podcast to discuss the farm bill which affects farming initiatives and stewardship, the role of conservation in farming, small businesses in rural communities, and much more. Brett Melone, chief business strategies officer at California FarmLink, also joined the conversation, with comments from farmers Dan Voss and Max Chavez, both of Iowa.

Why is the farm bill important?

The most recent farm bill was enacted into law in December 2018 and will expire on Sept. 30, 2023.

The Center’s focus has been on programs within the farm bill that offer the greatest benefits to family farms, rural communities, and our natural resources. The Center strives to make sure farmers, ranchers, and members of rural communities have access to farm bill programs and understand how they work.

“Policy has a tremendous effect on our communities and agriculture,” said Kate. “Through policy work, the Center tries to uplift rural voices and make changes that have impact at the local level, state level—with staff in Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, and Minnesota, as well at the federal level. We’re doing what we can to relay rural voices to those in Washington, D.C., to create policy.”

Center for Rural Affairs’ farm bill priorities

The farm bill is made up of 12 titles, or sections, pertaining to different topic areas and agencies. In the upcoming farm bill, the Center will concentrate on conservation, language accessibility, crop insurance, rural economic development, and small meat processing.

“We put a lot of thought, years of work, and dozens, if not hundreds, of conversations into our list of priorities,” said Kate. “We have been judicious in what made it to our final list of recommendations.”

Center staff has worked to ensure the information they’re putting their name behind is legitimate and helpful to rural communities.

“We have expertise in these subject areas and feel comfortable weighing in on these issues,” Kate said. “We are proud that our recommendations come from feedback we’ve heard on the ground—straight from rural people, farmers, ranchers, partner organizations, and other trusted sources. We want to send that feedback to federal policymakers.”

  • Conservation: “If a farmer or rancher is putting in conservation practices to benefit the land and natural resources, like cover crops, they get soil health, climate, water quality benefits, and more,” said Kate. “We want to make sure programs and structures reward that activity.”
  • USDA language accessibility: “Farmers all have different stories and backgrounds,'' said Kate. “We need to make sure they have the information they need to make the best decisions for their operations, and that they’re getting materials from USDA in their preferred languages.”
  • Crop insurance: “There are a series of programs administered by USDA that provide risk management for farmers and ranchers in case of crop loss, or in some cases revenue loss,” said Kate. “We are working to figure out how we can make changes to those programs to work better for producers, and to reward conservation.”
  • Rural economic development: “The Center works to improve the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program (RMAP) to better support small town and rural entrepreneurs,” said Kate. “We want to keep the program strong and make tweaks that will help small business owners.”
  • Small meat processing: “Small meat processors and main street lockers play an essential role for livestock producers, consumers, and rural economies,” said Kate. “The Center is working to secure long-term funding for the Meat and Poultry Intermediary Lending Program that will help these small meat producers.”

Farmers’ thoughts on farm bill improvements

Dan Voss, a lifelong farmer from Atkins, Iowa, manages a diversified farm where he has implemented conservation practices such as cover crops, no-till, contour planting, buffer strips, edge of field practices, and more. He has also installed solar panels and enrolled in multiple conservation programs over the years, including the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP).

After testing his soil health, Dan went to his local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office to receive the results.

“I want to protect the long-term health of the soil,” he said. “It’s the only soil we have, we can't make more. NRCS didn’t explain, just said my results were fine. I had to research on my own for an explanation. They also didn’t elaborate on how to improve soil health. CSP is a good program, but like any program, it can be improved. It’d be good if NRCS provided more guidance, that way you know you’d be getting the right answers instead of trying to find it on your own.”

Dan maintains an extended crop rotation on his 600 acres to protect soil health, improve water quality, and reduce soil erosion.

“This is where we need to go as an agricultural community,” he said. “Some people need more incentives to get there. Around Iowa there are a lot of good programs, but other places not as much, which is sad. Quite frankly, when people try something new, they can be reluctant because they don’t know how it’ll turn out. Anything the government can do to help with the farm programs would be helpful.”

A native of Mexico, Max Chavez has farmed for more than 53 years. He moved to California when he was 14, then to Iowa in 2006 and has farmed there since. 

“If we, ourselves, don't promote agriculture, agriculture will run out. A lot of labor is being lost because people don't want to work in the fields. It’s best that we promote and support the small farmers that want the help,” said Max through a translator.

Why should people take action, and how can they become engaged in the farm bill?

The priorities outlined in the Center’s farm bill platform come directly from farmers, rural leaders, and other individuals in rural communities who are directly affected by USDA programs.

“This piece of legislation impacts our rural areas so much,” said Kate. “The bill is broad and complex. Its 12 titles cover everything from rural development to energy to conservation to crop insurance. Every single title has an impact, if not directly on you, then on your neighbor. We’re in the thick of it now—these conversations are happening, but it’s not too late to get engaged. Get connected with organizations you believe in, and folks doing this work.”

Kate encourages people to share their priorities with lawmakers, invite staff to their farms and ranches, ask questions at events, and seek out other opportunities to engage.

“You are someone they need to hear from,” said Kate. “Sometimes people think, ‘What can I contribute? They don’t need to hear from me.’ But, yes, they do. You have more to offer than you may realize. Get connected and talk to your leaders. The more rural voices, the better.”

For information on the Center’s farm bill platform, visit

Center for Rural Affairs is a Rural Matters podcast marketing partner. This episode was created in partnership between Rural Matters and the Brookings Institution. To listen to this episode, click here.