TOPEKA — Kansas Rural Center policy analyst Paul Johnson said the federal farm bill plowed about two-thirds of crop subsidies into feed grains for livestock despite the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recommendation that half a person’s diet feature fruits and vegetables.

Johnson said too many politicians were content with the government’s recipe for stabilizing the agriculture economy and showed little interest in reform legislation matching USDA farm program strategies with dietary suggestions.

“It has health implications,” said Johnson, an organic market gardener. “It’s less than 1% of federal farm bill subsidies that go for primary sources of healthier food.”

Congress was expected to complete a rewrite of the five-year law implemented in 2018, but conflict interfered with work by the House and Senate on a bipartisan compromise. Federal lawmakers, including President Joe Biden, agreed to a one-year extension of the farm law that had earmarked $430 billion for food and agriculture objectives from 2019 to 2023.

About 80 cents of every $1 of farm bill expenditures go to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, while much of the remainder served interests of farmers engaged in growing wheat, corn, soybeans and sorghum. A fraction was reserved for specialty crops that included fruits ranging from apples to strawberries, vegetables such as artichokes and watermelon and tree nuts including almonds and walnuts.

Johnson said only 7% of Kansas farmers were under the age of 35 and the average age was nearly 60. He said Kansans should expect a robust generational change in who farms the state during the next two decades.

“We need a whole new generation of beginning farmers to emerge for a better, more wholesome food system in Kansas,” he said. “We need a Kansas food-farm plan from the Department of Commerce and Department of Agriculture. We need a robust debate. In this state … the Kansas Legislature doesn’t seem to take notice. We need to build it into the congressional campaigns and really talk about kind of the future of farming in Kansas.”

Kansas Farmers Union executive director Nick Levendofsky, who also appeared on the Kansas Reflector podcast with Johnson to talk about the farm bill, said updates to the federal law in 2024 should recognize broader agriculture interests.

National policy ought to place an emphasis on making food for U.S. consumers affordable, accessible and healthy, he said.

“Kansas was once one of those states that grew a lot of produce. We were growing grapes. We were growing potatoes and we were growing watermelon. There was lots and lots of diversity at one time,” said Levendofsky, part of a farm family operation near Belleville. “We could still be doing this. It’s just that we choose not to and because the system allows for the production of these other crops instead.”

In any given year, Kansas received $1 billion to $1.2 billion for farm programs and $400 million to $500 million for food stamps. Federal funding invested in Kansas has been so substantial that farmers concentrated on fewer crops.

Johnson said Congress could adjust the farm bill to bring about more equity in terms of distributing taxpayer funding. He said there were about 58,500 farms in Kansas, but 2,900 accounted for three-fourths of the state’s farm sales in 2017.

In fact, he said, 88% of approximately $1 billion in federal farm payments scattered across Kansas in the past 20 years went to 20% of farms in the state.

“So, only 12% of those farm payments were left over for the remaining, you know, 80% of farms,” Johnson said.

Levendofsky said Congress should fully fund conservative programs authorized in the farm bill to get as much participation as possible. In 2020, only 18% of eligible Conservation Stewardship Program applicants in Kansas received funding to develop whole farm conservation and soil improvement programs.

There is interest in drafting legislation requiring farmers who benefit from subsidized crop insurance to adopt land use practices embraced by environmentalists, Levendofsky said.

Directives could include common practices such as no-till cultivation, crop rotation, managed grazing, plant of cover crops to preserve moisture or terraces to deter erosion. Sustainable farming practices could reduce erosion into streams, rivers and reservoirs that compromised the drinking water supply.

Levendofsky said the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, which made investments in clean energy and climate action, included appropriations for farm conservation.

“Those programs are in place, so that we have that land to pass on to the next generation. It’s an investment,” Levendofsky said. “Preserving that land, preserving the water and the soil is key to all of this.”