Lawmakers in Washington are once again revisiting the smorgasbord legislation colloquially known as the farm bill, and North Carolina’s agriculture industry wants a seat at the table. But talks over the omnibus bill, which is renewed roughly every five years and authorizes hundreds of billions in funding for everything from corn subsidies to research into organics, often leave the western part of the state behind.
In states with a substantial farming sector, policy conversations tend to be dominated by large-scale producers of commodity crops, says agricultural economist Rod Rejesus of N.C. State University. In North Carolina, those growers are mostly based in the east, with thousands of acres planted in corn, soy or cotton. He points to recent farm bill listening sessions conducted in Smithfield by Republican Sen. Thom Tillis and across the state’s northeast by Democratic Rep. Don Davis.
Western North Carolina’s mountainous terrain, however, favors smaller farms producing a diverse mix of crops; Asheville in particular has a culture of new growers forging direct-to-consumer relationships through farmers markets and community supported agriculture. “This has been a perennial issue over the years, that these smaller farmers and beginning farmers are typically considered underserved in the farm bill,” Rejesus says.
Rep. Chuck Edwards, the Republican who serves WNC in the U.S. House, recognizes this deficiency. Last month, Edwards convened a nine-member agricultural advisory board to provide a variety of perspectives as he advocates for the region’s interests in the farm bill.
“We were looking for some of the folks that we typically don’t hear from,” Edwards tells Xpress. In addition to business owners like Kirby Johnson, whose Flavor 1st Growers and Packers supplies large supermarket chains such as Ingles, the board includes Anne Grier, a market grower who uses organic practices; Dale Hawkins, a cut-your-own Christmas tree producer; and Robin Reeves, a small-scale cattle farmer.
“The folks that are responsible for feeding and clothing us are asking for solutions at any level where they can be hurt,” says Edwards. “We owe it to those folks taking risks to grow food and fiber to do everything that we can to preserve our national security. A hungry nation is an angry nation.”
At the board’s first meeting on May 19 in Hendersonville, he notes, three concerns emerged as top priorities: access to labor, farmland preservation and crop insurance. On the first issue, continues Edwards, growers hope to maintain a reliable, affordable supply of foreign guest workers to plant and harvest — work that most American citizens don’t want to do.
North Carolina ranks among the top five states in the country for most participants enrolled in the H-2A visa program, which grants temporary residency to foreign farmworkers and ensures a minimum hourly wage of $14.91. In 2020, employers across the state were authorized to hire over 22,000 guest workers, the vast majority of them from Mexico.
But WNC farmers are also worried about increasing pressure to turn farmland into subdivisions. They also want federal programs aimed at reducing the risks of farming to cover a wider variety of crops. Edwards says he hopes to address these concerns in his contributions to the farm bill, but his team hasn’t yet developed specific policy proposals.
Agricultural advisory board member Brian Traylor says his business, Gaia Herbs, is affected by all three issues. The herbal supplement manufacturer grows much of its raw material on a 350-acre plot in Transylvania County.
Traylor says Gaia relies heavily on H-2A employees from central Mexico, many of whom return each year to work on the farm. “We want to make sure that the regulations around that program continue to stay in a place where the labor rate is both fair to the employees and competitive for the businesses that are bringing those people in,” he explains.
Meanwhile, farmland in the area continues to get snapped up for development, notes Traylor, which could hinder any expansion plans Gaia might have. And at the same time, he continues, nonresidential uses are becoming more competitive than agriculture, citing federal support for solar energy production in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act.
Finally, Traylor believes that formulas for federal crop insurance don’t sufficiently value the organic, regenerative practices Gaia employs on its farm. Because those methods reduce the risk of crop failure, he argues, farmers who use them should be rewarded with lower insurance rates.
“Many people want to do the right thing and are kind of on the edge,” he says. “As you help people understand the benefits of these practices and put incentives in, that could really help people make a transition.”
Feeding the hungry
Despite its informal name, however, the farm bill has even greater significance for people not directly involved in agriculture. Over 75% of the more than $325 billion authorized by the 2018 bill was for benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.
None of the advisory board members are directly involved in administering SNAP or other benefit programs, and Edwards doesn’t plan to establish a similar body for guidance on nutritional policy. He encourages constituents with concerns about those programs to call his office directly at 202-225-6401 or send a message via his website.
However, Edwards does note that WNC farmers have shown interest in collaborating with SNAP. “A very creative idea that was brought to me is that maybe small, local farmers and tailgate markets should be able to accept SNAP vouchers so that we could provide locally sourced, more healthy foods,” he says. (Some local farmers markets already accept SNAP payments, but the details vary. The Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, an Asheville-based nonprofit, has programs that encourage SNAP recipients to buy fresh produce.)
On the administrative side, Edwards says he’ll fight to maintain work requirements for able-bodied, childless adults who receive SNAP benefits. Those requirements were recently expanded to eventually apply to adults ages 50-54 as part of the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023, which raised the federal debt ceiling.
Many of Edwards’ Republican colleagues in the House hope to tighten SNAP regulations even further during the farm bill negotiations. Democrats, who narrowly control the Senate, have said they will fight against new restrictions on the program and may vote against any farm bill that contains them.
Jaylen Cates, policy director for the nonprofit Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, notes that similar battles over SNAP have delayed renewal of the farm bill in the past. The group, which promotes sustainable agriculture throughout the Carolinas, is concerned that political infighting could jeopardize other funding that local farmers rely on.
“We had this happen in 2014,” Cates explains. “The farm bill was held up and wasn’t passed before the reauthorization deadline. And when that happens, programs that don’t have mandatory funding stop having money. The grant programs don’t run.”
Congress, says Cates, needs to recognize how the program benefits farmers and not let disagreements about it hold up the entire farm bill, pointing out, “Those SNAP customers are customers of farm products.”
The clock is ticking
Lawmakers still have several months to renegotiate the farm bill. Its most recent iteration, the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, isn’t set to expire until the end of September. Edwards says a first draft of new language isn’t expected until sometime earlier that month.
Rejesus, the N.C. State economist, says that the omnibus nature of the bill lends itself to political give-and-take. Urban, mostly Democratic legislators tend to focus on the law’s nutritional programs, while rural, mostly Republican lawmakers want support for the farmers in their districts. The two sides usually trade concessions within different sections of the bill, he continues, until they achieve a bipartisan compromise that enables the entire package to pass.
Edwards suggests that Republicans will focus those talks on keeping costs down. “The black cloud in the sky is our growing debt. The real challenge is going to be how to meet the needs of our agriculture community and still reverse the horrible spending that we’ve seen up here in Washington,” he says.
But despite their philosophical differences, notes Rejesus, both parties have a powerful incentive to find some common ground. If the farm bill isn’t renewed, many of its provisions would revert to what’s called “permanent law,” much of which dates to a jumble of legislation from the 1930s and ’40s.
“We don’t want that,” stresses Rejesus.