Richmond Times-Dispatch: For Spanberger, work on new farm bill no chore, but an opportunity


DOSWELL — Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, did not hesitate when Andrew Walmsley, a senior official for the American Farm Bureau Federation, referred to her as “one of the most effective” members of Congress on agricultural issues.

“The,” Spanberger reminded him, prompting a ripple of laughter at “Abigail Spanberger’s Farm Bill Summit” on Tuesday.

It was a lighthearted moment in a serious daylong discussion on the challenges facing Virginia farmers, but Spanberger is making the most of her recent ranking as the most effective member of Congress on agricultural issues by the Center for Effective Lawmaking, a partnership between the University of Virginia and Vanderbilt University.

Spanberger, who had just been elected and not yet seated when Congress passed the last Farm Bill in 2018, sees an opportunity for bipartisan progress in the push to reauthorize a farm bill that sets funding and priorities in a dozen broad initiatives for agriculture and forestry.

“It’s a Farm Bill year!” she exclaimed to about 100 people who gathered here to represent a wide range of agricultural interests from across Virginia. “I waited for this!”

The bill, dating to legislation adopted 90 years ago at the beginning of the New Deal under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, is a five-year authorization of federal spending across 12 titles or categories. It covers federal support for commodity prices and agricultural disasters, land conservation, nutrition, trade, research, credit, crop insurance, horticulture, energy, forestry and rural development programs that range from water supply and electricity to high-speed internet and housing.

The Farm Bill also represents a political opportunity for Spanberger, who routinely reminds audiences that she is the only Virginian on the House Agriculture Committee, representing a newly drawn district that encompasses both the Northern Virginia suburbs and outlying farm counties. The district now includes Caroline County, where she presided over the summit at Meadow Event Park, a famed former horse farm from which Triple Crown winner Secretariat galloped into history.

“Reaching out to rural areas pays off, now and in the future,” said Steve Farnsworth, director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, in the heart of the 7th District under a political map that the Virginia Supreme Court adopted at the end of 2021.

Spanberger’s future could include a run for governor in 2025, although she gives no indication of her intentions one way or the other. She represented parts of Henrico and Chesterfield counties in the old 7th District and now serves a slice of another major state population center, but she has always paid attention to the interests of outlying farm-based counties that vote reliably Republican in a political swing district.

The Center for Effective Lawmaking also ranked Spanberger as the 19th most effective member of the House of Representatives — Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-11th, ranked first — in the Democratic-controlled 117th Congress that ended last year.

It will not be easy for the three-term congresswoman to maintain a high ranking in the new 118th Congress, now controlled by Republicans who may not share her concerns about climate change and cultural diversity.

“Spending a lot of time in rural parts of the district benefits Spanberger by making her a strong candidate for reelection, but it also would help her if she were to reach out in other parts of Virginia in a statewide campaign,” Farnsworth said.

Influence on the Farm Bill

The Farm Bill reauthorization gives her a chance to address concerns of urban and suburban Virginia because of its central role in providing affordable food for people with low incomes through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

The program represents about 85% of the more than $1.4 trillion spending on Farm Bill programs over the next 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office in an analysis that provides the foundation for the bill.

The Bakersfield-based district of new House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., lies in California’s farm-rich Central Valley.

“I think he has a strong desire to get a farm bill done,” said Walmsley, senior director of government affairs for the American Farm Bureau Federation, in an overview of the legislation for the summit.

The Virginia Farm Bureau says it wants the bill to protect current federal spending on farm programs; keep the nutrition and farm programs together; make a top priority of risk management initiatives, such as federal crop insurance and commodity programs; and boost the technical assistance and other staff at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“The farm bill has been a bipartisan effort in the past, and the 2023 farm bill presents an opportunity for lawmakers to rise above partisanship and work together to pass legislation that protects food security for all Americans and the future success of farmers,” said Ben Rowe, national affairs coordinator for the Virginia Farm Bureau, in an email statement

Rep. Rob Wittman, R-1st, who now represents parts of the Richmond suburbs in a district that ranges from his home on the Northern Neck through the middle and lower peninsulas, calls agriculture and forestry “one of the most important economies in the commonwealth.”

“The upcoming Farm Bill reauthorization allows Congress to support our rural economies as it gives farmers certainty and stability as they continue to provide food and fiber to markets worldwide,” Wittman said in an email statement.

Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture Joseph Guthrie, a cattle farmer from Pulaski County, said the Farm Bill is “enormously important for Virginia,” but he would be happy with “incremental change” in existing programs.

“As I talk to farmers across the state, farmers are for the most part satisfied with the present Farm Bill,” Guthrie said in an interview during the summit.

Spanberger said the House Agriculture Committee is generally marked by “bipartisanship and cooperation.”

“I’m working to make sure we don’t get derailed,” she said.

Diverse industry in play

The industry itself is wide-ranging, with a variety of interests represented at the summit — cattle and dairy, poultry, commodity grain crops, aquaculture and seafood processors, orchards and niche horticulture markets. They all share common concerns about managing risk and rising production costs in a time of inflation; recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic; war in Ukraine; and trade tensions with China, the top market for Virginia farm exports such as soybeans and pork.

“I don’t think there’s anything that hasn’t gone up (in price) the past three years,” said Adam Davis, a Halifax County farmer who suddenly finds his remote farm in Southside next to expensive new homes for people seeking a piece of the country life.

Two of those homes belong to people who live in Loudoun County, the fastest-growing locality in the state. “To hear that’s happening in Halifax, that worries me to a new level,” Spanberger said during the lunch break at the summit.

It is also a concern for Jacob Gilley, a livestock and poultry farmer who runs Heaven’s Hollow Farm in Madison County and adjoining Orange County. “Broadband is certainly necessary for everybody, but expansion of broadband communications also has opened the door to working remotely for people who want to live in rural areas,” said Gilley, who owns 16 acres and leases 250 acres.

Orange was part of Spanberger’s old district, but Madison became part of the new 7th, along with Caroline, Greene County, a sliver of northern Albemarle County and King George County, where seafood is a major industry. The new district also represents farm interests in Stafford and Spotsylvania counties in the Fredericksburg area, and Culpeper County, which was part of the old district.

“I’m just impressed by the time she devotes to agriculture and conservation,” said Gilley, who previously served as Farm Bureau president in Orange.

Rowe, at the farm bureau, credits Spanberger for her attention to farmers’ concerns. “Generally, she’s been a great partner for us,” he said.

That reputation could help Spanberger in future general elections, Farnsworth said. “Respect gets you a long way.”

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