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A combine harvests corn at a farm near Allerton, Illinois. Joshua A. Bickel/AP

Both Parties Agree on Technology in Agriculture. So Why Can’t They Get It Done?

Republicans and Democrats both want to promote precision agriculture. They agree on the policies. So why are they struggling with finding the right vehicle to get these policies into law?

Republicans and Democrats agree that “precision agriculture” — the practice of using technology to make farming more efficient — is an important priority that lawmakers ought to be promoting.

The problem is that passing this weird little area of agreement into law likely means attaching it to an extremely controversial farm bill that may be going nowhere.

“Right now, it looks like there’s definitely interest in leadership to incorporate,” Rep. Don Davis said of putting precision agriculture provisions into the farm bill. But, Davis warned, that only means something if the farm bill actually passes.

“It would be great if we can get to an agreement,” Davis said. “More of an agreement, let me say.”

As Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate negotiate a new farm bill — with the previous measure expiring on Sept. 30 — it’s looking more likely by the minute that Congress will end up just extending existing provisions until after the November elections. The farm bill, which marries food assistance for low-income Americans with subsidies for farmers, is a delicate compromise between the two parties. (Conservatives often refer to the marriage as the “unholy alliance.”)

But this year, Republicans in the House are trying to cut some food assistance programs — most notably the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — while adding to the farm subsidies. Meanwhile, Democrats in the Senate are trying to do the opposite.

That has left the farm bill in limbo. House Republicans on the Agriculture Committee favorably advanced a new five-year farm bill out of the committee in May, complete with substantial increases to the price floors for a number of crops. But the Senate timeline remains in flux. Even if both chambers passed their bills, there would likely need to be a time-consuming conference between the House and Senate to hammer out the differences.

To put it mildly, the timeline of the bill is shaky — meaning it’s a legislative vehicle that could be going nowhere. That bodes poorly for lawmakers stuck hitching precision agriculture to the farm bill’s wagon.

Precision agriculture is the practice of making crop and livestock production more efficient through technology. As all industries enter a more data-driven world, precision agriculture leverages GPS, automation and artificial intelligence to make farming smarter.

Agriculture Tech John Deere
John Deere has hauled in a 20-ton combine harvester aided by artificial intelligence, while the combine has cameras with computer-vision technology to track the quality of grain coming into the machine so that its kernel-separating settings can be adjusted automatically. Ross D. Franklin/AP

Members have been trying to aid precision agriculture efforts for years. The 2017 farm bill included provisions for precision agriculture, but the technology has advanced since.

Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Republican Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska reintroduced two bills from 2021 this session — one helping farmers get loans to purchase precision agriculture equipment and another augmenting existing Department of Agriculture conservation programs to help farmers integrate precision ag tools. The House versions of those bills this session also have bipartisan support.

That bipartisanship isn’t unique for this subject. Last year, GOP Sen. John Thune of South Dakota and Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia introduced a bill to help bolster precision agriculture adoption by developing interconnectivity standards. Once again, the House version has both Democrats and Republicans signed on, and another House bill to promote precision agriculture passed 409-11 last year.

“A lot of the issues in ag are not partisan. We align them more regional,” Warnock told NOTUS. “Precision agriculture is something that I’m a strong proponent of. Farmers in Georgia understand the value. I’ve seen it up close, how it’s helping them.”

“This is really important,” Chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee Debbie Stabenow of Michigan said. “This is part of the positive parts of AI.”

All of that consensus might indicate that separate bills could move through the chambers without controversy. But the congressional leaders on farm policy — not to mention the actual leaders of both chambers — seem reluctant to devote floor time to precision agriculture. The big reason these issues are getting lumped into the farm bill appears to come down to one thing: time.

Lawmakers only have 32 scheduled legislative days until the election — the same number of legislative days until the expiration of the current farm bill. Again, however, no one knows if a new farm bill is actually moving.

Asked about passing the precision agriculture provisions separately, Thune told NOTUS, “It’d be really nice if we could.”

“But it’s usually hard to get bills like that across the Senate floor unless it’s in the context of a broader farm package. So I think it’d be hard,” Thune said.

Stabenow was similarly noncommittal when asked if those provisions could move outside the farm bill.

“We’ll have to see,” she said.

House Republicans are skeptical that the Senate farm bill is moving anytime soon. The House Agriculture chairman, Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, noted that there wasn’t even legislative language on the Senate side.

“Senator Stabenow does not have a farm bill yet. She’s got a collection of ideas,” he told NOTUS. “I’d love to see one. I’m looking forward to that. And I want her to be working with the Senate Republicans, obviously.”

Last month, Fischer said Senate Republicans had stalled farm bill talks because the party wanted to see “more farm” in the legislation. She was specifically pushing to get bills on precision agriculture included in the farm bill.

Since then, she’s said “all parties are supportive” of the precision agriculture components. “So I feel pretty good about their being included,” she said.

On moving those components separately, however, Fischer didn’t seem supportive.

“It would be nicer to include it in the farm bill,” she said.

Nuha Dolby is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.