“We are deeply committed to working together to solve problems in these unprecedented times. And we will. We will move forward,” says Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., at the conclusion of the first farm bill field hearing held Friday on the campus of Michigan State.
Stabenow helped write the past two farm bills with former Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and now will be working with new ranking member Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., who joined her Friday, to formulate where common ground can be found ahead of the farm bill expiration in September 2023.
“The Senate agriculture committee has a long history of working across party lines to produce strong farm bills. The tradition of starting the process off with field hearings in the states of the chair and ranking member sets the tone for putting stakeholders first as we begin farm bill deliberations,” Boozman says. “There is simply no substitute for getting out of Washington and hearing directly from those impacted by our decisions.”
The leaders heard from two panels, each consisting of eight witnesses, to provide insight into what has worked and what needs improved upon in the next writing of the farm bill. Witnesses testified about the importance of crop insurance, a need to potentially increase USDA-backed loan rates, and ways the government through the farm bill can partner with farmers to implement conservation measures.
Need to increase farm loan limits
“My father, John King, purchased the first 80-acre farm with a 100% loan for beginning farmers through the USDA. As a young bachelor, with no family history in agriculture and no seed money or equity to speak of, this Farm Bill program was the only way that he could realize his dream of being a cherry farmer,” shares Juliette King McEvoy, of King Orchards in Central Lake, Mich.
When asked at what level Farm Service Agency lending limits may need to be increased, she told the senators she’s competing against a lot of developers for that lake view land that also is perfect for her orchard growth. The current $600,000 limit can be quickly exhausted by smaller operations, so a level as high as $1.5 million may be needed to account for higher land values.
Jake Isley, of Stewardship Farms in Blissfield, Mich., adds that although he’s not competing with developers on the lake, he’s up against larger organizations and entities purchasing farmland. He attempted to participate in the young farmer loan program, but loan limits prevented him from utilizing USDA-backed funding. He suggests terms could be adjusted to account for the ever-changing market to purchase farm real estate.
Partnering on addressing climate change
Glen Chown of the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, a regional land trust based in Traverse City, Mich., says the Fruit Belt needs to make sure its prime farmland and valuable soils are protected. One of the best ways to do that is through the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Agricultural Conservation Easement Program as well as the Regional Conservation Partnership Program.
“Our region clearly has the potential to be an example of what can be done, right now, to address food security and climate change, and the federal government can be assured that there is a network of organizations in place to make it happen. We have the necessary elements to make it work: prime agricultural lands; enthusiastic skilled farmers; a direct sales and distribution network; training and mentoring programs for new and beginning farmers; and local farmers willing to serve as test sites and mentors,” Chown adds.
Brian Bates, of Bear Creek Organic Farm in Petoskey, Mich., says that his farm has built two hoophouses through NRCS’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program. “While this program’s funding has been dramatically outpaced by the cost of materials (even before the current inflationary pressure), it is arguably the most popular NRCS program amongst growers like us. Few things can transform the productivity and profitability of a small market farm faster and more efficiently than a hoophouse or greenhouse,” Bates says.
Many witnesses thanked Stabenow for her efforts to establish the RCCP program in the 2014 Farm Bill, as well as pushing to triple mandatory funding in the 2018 Farm Bill to expand conservation partnerships during the reconciliation process in 2021.
When asked earlier in the week about the baseline, especially for conservation, Stabenow notes she’s been working very hard to create additional ways for farmers and ranchers to be support for doing more comprehensive conservation efforts that are not only good for them, but directly relate to limiting the amount of carbon going into the atmosphere.
“The climate crisis is not going away,” she says, adding farmers are dealing with this every day.
Isley, who testified on behalf of Michigan Soybean Association, says that the safety net offered in the 2018 Farm Bill with the Price Loss Coverage and Average Revenue Coverage options did not provide a sufficient safety net for soybean farmers who saw prices plummet with the China trade war.
During the height of the China trade war in 2018, U.S. soy stopped flowing to the market during the peak export period that fall. Soybean prices fell by about 20%, but the producers of the crop received no PLC payments and little from the ARC program under the Title I safety net. USDA stepped in with ad hoc, temporary support to farmers through the Market Facilitation Program.
“If soybeans, the second-largest crop by area in the U.S., did not receive help through Title I during this critical situation, it is hard to imagine a scenario where the Title I safety net could provide meaningful help with the current reference price,” Isley shares.
National Association of Wheat Growers Past President and Cass City, Mich., wheat farmer Dave Milligan was not part of the oral witnesses but provided written testimony highlighting how programs impacted wheat growers. In the testimony, Milligan notes how COVID-19, the severe drought and the Russian invasion of Ukraine have all impacted the economic conditions in wheat country and emphasized the importance of preserving farm safety nets for economic disruptions.
Michigan dairy farmer Ashley Kennedy, a member of the Michigan Milk Producers Association, testified on behalf of MMPA. She shares the dairy industry, under National Milk Producers Federation leadership, is seeking consensus on a range of improvements to the Federal Milk Marketing Order system, including but not limited to the Class I mover, that can be taken to USDA for consideration in a national order hearing. Kennedy praised the Dairy Margin Coverage program as “essential to our farm and family’s financial success last year” and called attention to recent improvements that accounted for modest production increases and better reflect dairy farmer feed costs.