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Senate ag committee farm bill hearings under way

The Senate Agriculture Committee held its first farm bill hearing on June 30, 2010. The focus of this first hearing was on how well the current safety net is working for farmers, and maintaining the domestic food supply through strong farm policy.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln, chairperson of the Senate Ag Committee, said in her opening statements that, “The farm bill is one of the most important pieces of legislation Congress considers on behalf of rural America and our nation’s farmers and ranchers. In the 2008 farm bill, we made some significant new investments in nutrition, energy, conservation, rural development and other priorities while maintaining the integrity of the farm safety net.

“In the next Congress, we will be writing the 2012 farm bill. In this process, we will have the opportunity to build on the good things we have accomplished.”

Mark Watne, a farmer from North Dakota, thinks the current bill is working and will provide a good starting point.

“I believe the reason we have a farm bill is to provide a functioning food production and security system for our nation,” said Watne, who farms 1,500 acres. “When we look at the abundance of top-quality, inexpensive food currently in our nation, we can only assume the current farm bill is achieving that goal.”

But, there are improvements he’d like to see in the next bill:

“If we are to make major changes to the farm bill, we should strengthen the crop insurance coverage to include lower premiums for greater coverage, or other revenue and production concepts to more directly represent the cost of production and inflation,” he said.

He’d also like to see a change in the ACRE program.

“I would suggest we consider supporting a shift of direct or decoupled payments to a new or better program that reflects cost of production plus inflationary safety nets,” added Watne. “The Average Crop Revenue (ACRE) program was an attempt to begin this process, but was complicated from a farmer’s perspective.”

Roger Johnson, president, National Farmers Union, thinks ACRE can be successful with some modification.

“The next farm bill would do well to eliminate the revenue loss provision. If modifications were made to ACRE so that individual farm factors would serve as the trigger for payments, the program would operate more closely to what was intended in the 2008 farm bill.”

There are other issues farmers are now facing, said Johnson, and he’d like to see them addressed in the new bill.

“The next farm bill must address the new realities we face: Extreme volatility in market prices for commodities; extended periods of extraordinarily high energy costs; and the ongoing exodus of young people and job opportunities from our rural areas,” he said. “Investments in the farm safety net programs will keep American family farmers in the business of providing consumers with affordable, domestically produced, safe and nutritious food. NFU believes these programs are currently out of balance and need adjustments in the 2012 farm bill.

Keeping American farmers in business is a goal of Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

“As we move forward toward development of the next farm bill, it is important we approach this new legislation with an eye toward truly making a difference in the future of the lives of millions of rural Americans. If we set our goals appropriately, we can properly assist and strengthen production agriculture, while also building and reinforcing the future of rural communities. Every opportunity for bettering rural America should be considered. We need to adopt innovative approaches and listen to the needs of production agriculture and rural communities. Again, I believe it is important to be ambitious and set our goals as high as possible,” he said.

Bob Stallman, president, American Farm Bureau Federation, said Farm Bureau believes the 2012 farm bill should support a stable business environment critical to success in agriculture.

“Abruptly changing the rules of the game on farmers, particularly in a tight credit environment, can be disastrous to a farmer or rancher’s operation,” Stallman said. “Our options will recognize the need for transition periods for major policy changes so that farmers and ranchers will have the opportunity to adjust their business models accordingly.”

(For more on what Stallman had to say, please click here).

Farmers want to be able to keep their businesses stable and operating, and understand that changes are necessary to meet future costs of operation, but they need programs to meet their goals.

“It is critical that we maintain provisions that allow us to be competitive in world markets and provide support in times of low prices. Our industries will evaluate different program delivery systems if necessary to accomplish these goals,” said Dow Brantley, a cotton, rice, corn and soybean producer in Arkansas.

“The existing safety net protection levels have simply not kept pace with the significant increases in production costs. It is for this reason that I believe strengthening the safety net would be helpful in ensuring that producers have the ability to adequately manage their risks and access needed credit. I believe the marketing loan program prices must be raised to meet the costs of today’s production,” said Brantley.

Sen. Lincoln understands that producers have goals they need to meet to be competitive and productive.

“I think most American farm and ranch families simply want steady, predictable, supportive policies coming out of Washington … and for us to otherwise get out of their way. Huge policy fluctuations, mixed signals coming out of Washington, and the uncertainty that these things create make it very difficult for our producers to compete, invest, and plan for the future. So, rather than start from scratch or from some new fangled idea cooked up in Washington or in some college professor’s office, we need to reassure our farmers and ranchers that we will start where we left off: The 2008 farm bill. If we can do better by our producers in 2012, great. But, if not, current law serves as the benchmark from which we will work,” Lincoln said.

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