American farmers and ranchers are at the frontlines of the climate crisis, yet available research and resources have not kept up to help producers meet the challenge and adapt. The Farm Bill is the primary legislative mechanism that can lay down critical groundwork to address these research gaps and equip producers to respond to existing and emerging challenges.

After months of anticipation, the House Republican Majority and Senate Democratic majority released draft Farm Bill proposals. These drafts signal important momentum, but before a new Farm Bill can become law, Congress must engage in earnest negotiations, particularly on sticky climate and nutrition issues. This will hopefully culminate in a final Farm Bill that champions bipartisan, innovative, and science-based provisions like those included in the Advancing Research on Agricultural Climate Impacts (ARACI) Act (S. 2241/ H.R. 5160) and perennial agricultural systems like agroforestry. The House and Senate versions look different, so we’re here to break down what we’ve seen from both chambers and what we can expect moving forward. 

The Senate proposal 

Although the Senate has not released the full bill text, Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) published a thorough section-by-section of her Farm Bill vision, titled the Rural Prosperity and Food Security Act of 2024, which outlines the Senate Agriculture Democrats’ priorities. This draft proposal reflects provisions from over 100 bipartisan marker bills, and maintains the integrity and climate focus of Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) funding. 

Key provisions and programs 

Chair Stabenow’s draft includes critical climate, carbon sequestration, and land-based CDR provisions, offering support for operational and environmental resilience. Let’s dive into some of the highlights. 

Support for USDA programs. Research and conservation initiatives at USDA support producers in adopting climate-smart practices while providing environmental and economic co-benefits. Adding carbon sequestration as a listed purpose for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) means producers could receive funding to actively work on increasing soil carbon stocks as a natural resource concern. Under this proposal, additional support for USDA programs includes: 

  • The permanent authorization of Climate Hubs and popular federal conservation programs, which alleviates the burden of regular authorization.
  • On the research side, an extension of the authorization for the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program and the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) means important soil carbon research conducted by farmers and academics can continue.
  • An update to the Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) Program to advance forest carbon monitoring, measurement, reporting, and verification (MMRV).

Crucial recognition and investment in soil carbon MMRV. The Senate proposal includes key tenets of the ARACI Act, including: 

  • Provisions to standardize soil carbon methodology, ensuring data collected can be aggregated and compared to derive insights.
  • Establishment of a program to inventory, analyze and monitor soil carbon long-term, enabling links between conservation practices and soil carbon outcomes.
  • Authorization of $50 million, with 30% dedicated to technical assistance for historically underserved producers.

Recognition of agroforestry. A highly effective land-based CDR system, agroforestry has received strong support in the Senate’s proposal, although more can be done, such as adding supplemental payments for these practices and bundles to CSP and establishing the proposed pilot program under the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) as a permanent initiative. As it stands right now, the Senate framework includes provisions to: 

  • Create a new Agroforestry Pilot within CRP to incentivize the enrollment of marginal lands devoted to agroforestry.
  • Double the authorization for funding for the National Agroforestry Center (NAC), adding at least one regional center.
  • Include the eligibility of perennial systems, including agroforestry, for on-farm trials under the Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) program.
  • Expand the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) to include the conversion of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to climate-friendly systems like agroforestry.

The House full draft 

The House Agriculture Committee Majority, led by Chairman G.T. Thompson (R-PA), recently released the summary and full draft of the House Farm Bill, titled the Farm, Food, and National Security Act of 2024. We’ve broken down what was included, as well as excluded, in the House draft.

Support for forestry and agroforestry programs. Chairman Thompson’s draft includes several important provisions, some of which are aligned with the Senate draft. This includes: 

  • Expansion of NAC, enhancing the center’s capabilities and reach.
  • Inclusion of agroforestry and perennial systems in CIG on-farm trials, promoting sustainable practices through practical, on-the-ground research.
  • Update to the FIA program to incorporate carbon measurement and better assess and manage forest carbon stocks.
  • Establishment of the Forest Conservation Easement Program (FCEP), protecting working forest land through easements. 

Reallocation of IRA funding. The Inflation Reduction Act included climate guardrails in its $20 billion investment in agriculture to ensure funds go to high-value climate-smart practices. The House draft notably rescinds and reallocates all unobligated IRA funding into programs across the Conservation Title, regardless of their contribution to climate. 

Prioritization of non-climate innovation. The House bill rarely mentions climate resilience, climate mitigation, or carbon sequestration. Instead, precision agriculture, mechanization, and automation receive a disproportionate research focus, sidelining other urgent innovation priorities. 

Changes to the Conservation Reserve Program. The House draft includes significant changes to CRP, emphasizing soil capability classification rather than the environmental benefits of land enrollments and diminishing the program’s emphasis on water quality. 

Last week, the House Agriculture Committee held a vote to advance the Farm, Food, and National Security Act of 2024 to the House floor, in a session known as markup. This illustrated the significant partisan divisions that need to be resolved for the Farm Bill to have a chance at becoming law. Democrats coalesced around several key issues: the removal of IRA climate guardrails, restrictions on the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC), and long-term cuts to SNAP, USDA’s major food assistance program. Chairman Thompson maintains that he has not set any “red lines” and is open to discussions and alternative funding sources, although Republicans blocked several major Democrat-led amendments addressing these concerns. 

What happens next 

The current extension of the Farm Bill stretches through September 2024, leaving Congress with a narrow window to pass a final version, especially as members divert their time and attention to the November elections. As Congress kicks the can farther and farther down the road, additional variables enter the mix — like a new Congressional Office Budget score to abide by, dwindling IRA funding to boost conservation programs, or even a new administration — complicating an already tricky process. As the House bill markup showed, both chambers have work to do in reaching bipartisan agreement. While the full extent of agricultural transformation needed to truly scale land-based CDR remains outside of the political realities of this Farm Bill, the policies included in the final bill could move us towards this goal. For now, we will continue to push for IRA climate guardrails and the inclusion of bipartisan proposals that promote soil and forest carbon monitoring, while also expanding support for innovative on-farm conservation and climate mitigation methods. 

Edited by Ana Little-Saña. Image by Maria Oswalt.