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What does the 2023 Farm Bill need?

Food security and soil and water quality were top of mind for a gathering of concerned Southwest Iowa citizens at a 2023 Farm Bill Forum held at the Warren Cultural Center (WCC) in Greenfield, Iowa, on Thursday, Oct. 20. The event was part of an ongoing Successful Communities Speaker Series presented by WCC.

Farm Bill Forum Speakers

Moderator: John Norris is a former chief of staff at the USDA, U.S. Minister-Counselor for Agriculture, and former candidate for Iowa Governor. 

  • Francis Thicke is an Iowa dairy farmer and Farmer’s Union member with expertise in soil science. 
  • J.D. Scholten is an independent farmer advocate and once candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives from northern Iowa.
  • Randy Caviness is an Adair County, Iowa, farmer with statewide Farm Bureau leadership credentials also involved in Iowa State University Extension and Outreach and Soil Conservation Districts of Iowa leadership. He is the driving force behind an independent windmill energy project and a leader in farming conservation methods.

Beginning in the 1920s and accentuated by the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, the federal government has attempted to manage agriculture production for nearly a century. But, as Norris said in opening remarks, “No federal policy is forever.”

Food security

Ensuring food security is a priority. Panelists pointed out current farm policy can work against local efforts. 
“America needs farmers, and farmers need antitrust,” said Scholten, who advocates for local and regional food chain infrastructure. “The current system of subsidies has led to decades of consolidation.” He cited the Tyson Foods' Holcomb, Kansas, beef processing plant fire as example, where one incident in one plant disrupted the national food chain. “Diets are changing, they’re more diverse. The younger generation wants alternatives. We need to think not just farm to table, but farm to prison, hospital, school.”

Caviness added regulation can often stand in the way of local meat lockers. As interest in direct purchase of meat has risen, locker capacity has diminished, partly due to demand as well as the need for onsite inspectors and other precautions that have made it impossible for small facilities to cover costs.
Transportation is another key issue in regional food distribution, according to Scholten. Direct marketers generally do not ship by the truckload. He proposes partnering with trucking companies to utilize empty space on trucks already scheduled for transit.
Even for the traditional farmer, getting goods to market is not as easy as it used to be. Caviness cited the consolidation of local farmer’s co-ops. “The big banks and big money want bigger business,” he said.
The current farm subsidy system is primarily tied to 5 crops: corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice. “It’s a policy that focuses on the mass production of calories and is not necessarily the best for our health,” said Norris.
Thicke reminded the crowd there are 1,300 farm lobbyists in Washington, D.C. “We subsidize the crops the lobbyists want us to subsidize.” And thus, subsidies can determine the market. “Farming has become good for the corporate monopolies that sell the inputs and buy the products.”
Caviness pointed out those subsides have kept farmers in business. “Farmers produce to the market and they are at the mercy of worldwide dynamics. The world economy demands greater efficiencies.”


All of the panelists expressed concern about outside land ownership, on both the corporate consolidation and conservation fronts, where it creates a need to educate landowners as well as farmers in the benefits of land and water stewardship. In Iowa, two-thirds of farmland is leased, according to Norris.
Thicke advocates tying any federal subsidies to conservation efforts. “Every farm should have a water quality improvement plan. We have the technical capability to do that,” he said.
Caviness praised the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act for its programs on conservation stewardship. “There are good programs in there,” he said, “for cover crops, for water quality. We just have to remember that like needed crop insurance, there is no one size fits all.” He cited the crop insurance program’s ability to address need at the county and individual level as one of its positives.


Panel consensus was that taking the focus away from corporate economics back to the farm, while preserving crucial resources, will be no easy task for those entrusted with creating public policy.
“There’s a huge chasm between where we are and where we want to go,” said Caviness. “The challenge is how do we get there without tipping the economy upside down.”
Will farmers see fundamental change in this next Farm Bill?
Norris is skeptical: “That depends on Congress being willing to stand up to the lobbyists.”

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