Farmland near Marengo, Iowa, has a layer of foliage in the topsoil protecting the subsoil. Nov. 9, 2015.

All right! It’s time once again to gather my bag of prognosticator tools to put you in the know of which agricultural stories will bubble to the top of the cauldron in 2023.

And what a bag! This year I’ve got a live chicken and seeds, a handful of bone oracles made out of cattle shoulder blades, melted wax, a half dozen turkey eggs, and a year’s supply of slightly stale fortune cookies. What could possibly go wrong? Here we go!

Climate change

I know. It’s the lowest of the low hanging fruit but should be on the list every year until world leaders from nations A-to-Z unify and find the money and backbone needed to slow fossil fuel emissions that are warming the planet and creating havoc with the weather.

At last November’s United Nation’s 27th Conference of the Parties on Climate Change participants re-heated and re-hashed the same old theme — namely nations not living up to financial promises made in earlier summits. U.S. President Joe Biden spent a few hours at the conference, mostly taking a victory lap on passage of the Inflation Reduction Act. Don’t get me wrong. IRA passage is huge for a nation still filled with WAY too many climate-deniers in Congress (I’m looking at you GOP as well as West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who acknowledges climate-change but is a huge supporter of the coal industry).

Truth be told, everything the world has done to date in the name of climate change hasn’t lowered record carbon-dioxide emissions. Geo-political conflicts have been a huge stumbling block. At the 2021 COP-26 in Glasgow, the U.S. and China produced a declaration of cooperation to keep global average temperature rise “well below two degrees Celsius and to pursue efforts to limit it one-and-a-half degrees Celsius.” That was a bust. A few months later, the China-U.S. Climate Working Group was suspended. Why? Because last August House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had the audacity to visit Taiwan.

Then in November, a resumption of the China-U.S. Climate Working Group was announced after Biden met face to face with China President Xi Jinping. Predicting whether that will amount to anything of consequence is a fool’s mission. China has a history of saying one thing and doing another. What is a fact is that China is responsible for 27 percent of global carbon dioxide and a third of the world’s greenhouse gases. At COP-27 this past November, China continued the farcical argument that as a “developing nation,” it deserved handouts from developed countries to begin to move off coal-energy generation. Yeah, the PRC is a CO2 bull in a china shop.

By and large COP-27 was a failure. Delegates spent two weeks arguing over and passing at the last moment a “loss and damage” scheme that’s supposed to shuffle money from wealthy nations to poor countries to cope with climate-change impacts. The deal was blessed by the U.S. when language was inserted that declares nations cannot be held legally liable for payments. Let me translate. If nation X doesn’t want to pay it can just say “go take a flying leap.”

A committee from 24 nations is supposed to bring plans to COP-28 later this year on how loss and damage will potentially work. Expect that to eat up the entire two week conference … which means there won’t be much effort put into the real problem. You know. The record amounts of greenhouse gasses that keep spewing into the atmosphere. Here’s the thing. While the world shuffles the deck chairs on the Titanic, the atmosphere is judge and jury for the planet’s future.

Needless to say there’s no time to waste. Through the first nine months of 2022, climate change was responsible for more than $100 billion in weather disasters. I don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer. But 2023 more likely than not will be too much talk and just a little action giving glimmering hope to keep average world temperatures from crossing that 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) benchmark. At current emission levels, the world has nine years to stop the temperature creep. As for the end of the century, the world is on a trajectory to warm by as much as 2.9 degrees Celsius.

Big Ag made a tiny, little, Lilliputian (pick one) splash during COP-27. Fourteen ag giants pledged to eliminate deforestation from their soybean, beef and palm oil supply chains by 2025. Similar deforestation goals have failed in the recent past, so we’ll see. The pledge also includes a promise for Big Ag companies to announce targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and begin disclosing emissions tied to land use change in 2024. Just how that happens is anyone’s guess.

Waters of the United States

The federal government — as I’ve discussed here, here, here and here — has had a devil of a time deciding which waters and wetlands fall under the regulation of the Clean Water Act. The federal courts haven’t fared any better. The last time the U.S. Supreme Court took up WOTUS was in 2006. In Rapanos v. U.S., the court issued five opinions, none of which garnered five votes. Handed this steaming pile of minority indecision the Environmental Protection Agency flipped a coin and settled on Justice Anthony Kennedy’s “significant nexus” test”:

“Wetlands possess the requisite nexus, and thus come within the statutory phrase ‘navigable waters’ if the wetlands either alone or in combination with similarly situated lands in the region, significantly affect the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of other waters more readily understood as ‘navigable.’ When, in contrast, wetlands’ effects on water quality are speculative or insubstantial, they fall outside the zone fairly encompassed by the statutory term ‘navigable waters.’ ”

In crafting the “significant nexus” test Kennedy placed a heavy burden on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and lower courts to examine not only physical hydrological connections, but also broader complex biological connections between navigable waters and wetlands.

Pity landowners who have to determine whether or not their property falls under Clean Water Act jurisdiction and if they get it wrong potentially face criminal prosecution.

Now the high court is seeing if it can improve on Rapanos. Any day now the U.S. Supreme Court will hand down its ruling in Sackett v. EPA. During oral arguments last October, there was clear skepticism for the “significant nexus” test when government lawyer Brian H. Fletcher was at the lectern.

Justice Neil Gorsuch asked Fletcher: “How does any reasonable person know … whether or not their land is covered? Is the property subject to regulation if it is located three miles or two miles from waters subject to federal jurisdiction.”

Fletcher responded there are no bright lines and there is a federal manual to explain the process. Gorsuch’s reasonable followup: “So, if the federal government doesn’t know, how is a person subject to criminal time in federal prison supposed to know?”

Further complicating the issue is that the Biden administration’s EPA released a new finalized WOTUS regulation just before the new year. The revised rule repeals Trump administration changes in favor of pre-2015 regulations while Joe Biden was vice president under President Barack Obama.

The new WOTUS rule restores federal control to millions of rivers, lakes, streams, wetlands and other bodies of water including tributaries. It includes new exemptions including ditches, artificially irrigated areas, artificial lakes or ponds, artificial reflecting pools or swimming pools, water-filled depressions, and swales. The plan also exempts wetlands converted to croplands prior to Dec. 23, 1985.

However the new WOTUS rule also includes Justice Kennedy’s “significant nexus” test. “Adjacent wetlands are jurisdictional if they meet either the relatively permanent standard or the significant-nexus standard, or where the wetland is adjacent to a traditional navigable water, the territorial seas, or an interstate water.”

The new WOTUS goes into effect 60 days after EPA posts it in the Federal Register. 

It is more than likely that the Supreme Court Sackett decision will upend the Biden EPA rule.  The hope among farmers and ranchers was that the Sackett ruling might provide reasonable legal sanity on which waters fall under the Clean Water Act. It most assuredly won’t. What is assured after Sackett is handed down are more lawsuits. A lot more.

The devil is in the details and honestly when it comes to defining adjacency there is not a one-size-fits-all-tie-it-up-with-a pretty-bow solution.

Regenerative farming

It’s been coming on for a while snowballing down the hill. It could be that 2023 sees a whole lot of interest in regenerative farming. Regenerative what? Glad you asked. RF has a handful of worthy goals — sequester carbon, conserve water, improve air quality, and manage soil health. In a perfect agricultural world, RF says farmers and agricultural landowners everywhere would become more responsible for being part of the climate change solution by embracing no-till planting and routine use of cover crops. Sounds like RF progress needs to primarily begin with farmers — a bottom-up approach.

As it turns out, it’s corporate interest in regenerative farming that’s leading the way. And at the top of the RF trailblazers list is … PepsiCo. Yeah, the makers of all those bubbly drinks. Worldwide PepsiCo owns more than 7 million acres of farmland, and the company has pledged every single one of them will be farmed with regenerative best practices by 2030. Now lots of times Big Ag makes glitzy promises that garner a media splash and then, to put it politely, nothing happens. But through the middle of last year PepsiCo has transformed 345,000 acres to RF.

General Mills also is on the RF train, promising to convert 1 million acres from traditional to regenerative farming by 2030

The question of questions is how to get farmers to buy into what corporations are cooking. Can farmers turn a profit converting to RF? There’s no clear-cut answer. I expect that Big Ag/food manufactures who truly believe in RF will make commitments to buy from farmers who deploy regenerative agriculture practices.

Late last year, 12 food companies including McDonald’s, Mars and PepsiCo agreed on a plan to increase RF acres. The consortium goals include: Building farmers’ income from environmental outcomes such as carbon reduction and removal; creating mechanisms to share the cost of transition with farmers; ensuring government policy enables and rewards farmers for transition; and developing new sourcing models to spread the cost of transition.

As you might imagine, there’s no ag fairy waving a magic wand. RF transformation requires farmer buy-in driven by the potential for profit. Still, the experiment is underway and could see additional gains by the end of 2023.

Farm Bill

Now that we know the GOP has regained the U.S. House, the nation is getting a new chair of the Agricultural Committee — G.T. Thompson of Pennsylvania. Expect him to change the direction of the committee when it comes to the Farm Bill. Thompson likely will prioritize crop insurance, dairy, forestry, and oversight of nutrition programs. Thompson has called for completion of the Farm Bill by the end of September when the current measure sunsets. That goal is going to take some doing.

The GOP’s far-right House Freedom Caucus is urging new members to fight Farm Bill funding.

The potential exists that the GOP will once again try to strip the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program out of the new bill. SNAP accounts for 80 percent of the Farm Bill budget. The last time the GOP tried to decimate SNAP was in 2013, passing a Farm Bill that would have stripped SNAP from the measure, cut SNAP by $40 billion over a decade and allowed states to require drug testing.

Under the leadership of then (and still) Senate Agriculture Committee chair Debbie Stabenow of Michigan the GOP’s 2013 attempt to water down SNAP failed. Stabenow pledges there won’t be sweeping changes to SNAP this year, regardless of what Republicans are planning.

And expect the GOP to try to pull the plug on climate-funding — especially USDA’s new Partnerships for Climate Smart Commodities program. The Republican Study Committee’s Blueprint to Save America is proposing significant budget cuts in the Farm Bill, including defunding conservation programs that pay producers to not plant environmentally sensitive acres.

If there is an ideological and budget battle over SNAP, most likely there won’t be a bill for Biden to sign in September. Without a new Farm Bill, lawmakers would need to pass an extension of the current law or face the unappealing consequences of the nation’s farm policy reverting back to outdated permanent law from the 1938 and 1949 Farm Bills. It’s entirely possible that the GOP far-right might use the threat of that as leverage to strip the bill of objectionable policies deemed too liberal.

Runaway farm land values

The cost of U.S. farmland has become truly eye-opening. USDA reports that farmland values nationwide in 2022 reached an average of $3,800 an acre — 12.4% higher than the previous year. Farmland values for Illinois, Iowa and California are more than $8,400 an acre.

A number of factors are responsible, including high commodity prices for crops including corn, soybeans and wheat, low interest rates throughout much of 2022, and short-term massive increases in farm subsidies.

All that right now is making it tough to enter farming as a profession.

The 2017 Census of Agriculture reported the average age of U.S. farmers was 57.5. That’s almost 10 years older than reported in the 1945 Census. So there’s an opportunity for young people to enter farming. But it ain’t so. The National Young Farmers Coalition reports finding affordable land as its top challenge in 2022.

And there’s not a lot of land to be had. Less than 1 percent of all U.S. farmland is sold on the open market annually. Not to mention that roughly 40 percent of U.S. farmland is rented. And oh yeah, U.S. agricultural land slowly has been dwindling due in large part to industrialization and urbanization — from more than 1.15 billion acres in 1950 to 895 million acres in 2021

Would-be-beginning-farmers also are finding themselves competing with a crop of non-farm folk for agricultural land including pension funds and trusts.

With the potential for commodity prices to remain high in 2023, it could be another tough year for those seeking to be farmers. It won’t be until 2024 with the next release of the U.S. Census on Agriculture that we’ll know with what degree do new farmers buck the odds and acquire farmland.

There you have it. The agricultural Blazin’ Five for 2023. If some things are off-target … blame Homer.

Dave Dickey

About Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Investigate Midwest covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. His opinions are his own and do not reflect Investigate Midwest. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

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