Members of Congress will soon be making their way back to the Beltway after the latest USDA outlook for farm revenues has added some fresh urgency to negotiations over the unfinished Farm Bill. The USDA’s 2023 Farm Sector Income Forecast was released just as the nation adjourned for the Labor Day weekend. It had projected a 23% drop in net farm income this year, a dizzying decline that should increase the focus on crop insurance and other basic financial support for farmers once the House and Senate agriculture committees get back to business later this month. “Combined with weather uncertainty and a high cost of capital to operate their businesses, farmers and ranchers will be forced to adapt as they always have,” said Danny Munch, an economist with the American Farm Bureau Federation. “Part of being able to adapt means having clarity on rules that impact their businesses’ ability to operate, having access to comprehensive risk management options and being given a resounding voice during formulation of vital legislation such as the Farm Bill.” Lawmakers were on the trail in late summer to shake hands and hear from their rural constituents about the stresses and strains of agriculture policy, although serious discussions of the Farm Bill will likely have to wait behind legislation to continue funding the government before taking center stage. The current Farm Bill’s appropriations expire on Sept. 30 with FY 2024 beginning Oct. 1. Political observers in Washington are confident that an extension of the Farm Bill will be granted this fall, although many farm organizations urge Congress to press forward so that growers will have a greater level of certainty as they make plans for the 2024 growing season. The USDA report was densely packed with the usual volume of comprehensive statistics; however, the bottom line shows the nation’s net farm income totaling $141 billion this year compared to $183 billion in 2022. Munch noted the August report finalized the 2022 income total and increased it around $20 billion from estimates made eight months ago. The declines in 2023 were tied to lower cash receipts for crops and livestock, higher production costs and a 19% decline in government support outlays from 2022. “Direct government payments are forecast to fall by $2.9 billion from 2022 to $12.6 billion in 2023,” the report said. “This decrease is expected largely because of lower supplemental and ad hoc disaster assistance in 2023 relative to 2022.” Analysts agreed that 2022 was an unusual year in which commodity prices were pushed higher by inflation and significant drought in the United States and by Russia’s disruption of Ukraine’s grain trade. The weather has improved in many areas this year while wheat prices no longer carry much of a war premium and the world seems in general to be adequately supplied. The declines come mainly from lower prices for the major commodity crops while cattle and vegetables should fare better, the USDA said. The impact on individual farming households will be varied since, the report said, most farm families hold outside jobs. The USDA projected a 3.8% increase in median household income to $98,148 this year, although much of the increase will be canceled out by inflation. Further downstream, the USDA projected working capital for farmers to fall 5.5% from last year to just under $122 billion, the first decline since 2016 and the lowest level since 2014. Munch said, “Lower levels of working capital often suggest that many U.S. farmers have just enough capital to service their short-term expenses and debt, which becomes more difficult as interest rates rise.” A likely point of friction for farmers is the increasing rental price for farmland, a rising cost that University of Illinois economists warned last week could make it even tougher for aspiring young farmers to establish their own operations. An August 31 report urged Farm Bill negotiators to be well aware of the impact that increased reference prices could have on the rents farmers pay to landowners. “For this reason, increasing government payments may benefit farmers in the short-term but hurt them over the long term,” the paper said, adding: “This is a problem that no amount of reference price increase in 2023 will help. These are matters that should weigh heavily on the congressional mind as reauthorization of these policies is undertaken.” Further reading: The USDA’s Farm Sector Income & Finances report is at: https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/farmeconomy/farm-sector-income-finances/ The Farm Bureau analysis by economist Danny Munch can be found at: https://www.fb.org/market-intel/usda-forecasts-23-drop-from-2022-farm-income-levels The University of Illinois analysis is available at: https://farmdocdaily.illinois.edu/2023/08/farm-bill-2023-is-there-bad-medicine-in-base-acresand-reference-prices.html.