The United States has the grain production capacity to meet food, fiber and renewable energy demands. In fact, farmers are just scratching the surface of production capabilities, says U.S. Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.
"Don't buy the argument that we've reached the limits of production capacity - that it's a contest between food and fuel. It's not. We can do both," says Harkin. "I'm telling you, you haven't seen anything yet. The research is showing what we can produce on a piece of land."
Harkin, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, dispelled the concerns to a group of farmers, agricultural organizations and industry experts during a 2008 Farm Bill forum on Feb. 29 at the Nationwide and Ohio Farm Bureau 4-H Center. Harkin joined U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio)\, in fielding questions regarding the upcoming farm bill and outlining the various proposals. Bobby Moser, dean of the Ohio State University's College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences, was also part of the panel. Ohio State University President E. Gordon Gee also made brief comments at the start of the forum.
Harkin emphasized the options available to farmers when it comes to renewable energy production, not only from corn grain and cellulose, but also from wood products, switchgrass, prairie grasses and willows. The House and Senate farm bill proposals call for increased funding for new renewable energy programs.
Other aspects of the 2008 Farm Bill discussed during the forum include:
• Funding to support the production of fruits, vegetables and other horticulture crops.
• Funding to support rural development, which includes a Rural Collaborative Initiative Program grant that encourages regional rural development at the grassroots level.
• Continued support of the 2002 Farm Bill conservation programs.
• Support for nutrition programs, specifically for food stamps and aid for low-income families. Aspects of the proposal call for increasing the food stamp asset level and continuing a program to provide free fruits and vegetables to schoolchildren. "We started that pilot program in the 2002 Farm Bill with 100 schools in four states (Ohio, Iowa, Michigan, Indiana) participating. Not one of them has dropped out of the program and now we have schools in 14 states participating in the program," said Harkin. "Our goal in 10 years is to have every elementary school student receiving free fruits and vegetables as a snack."
• A re-balance and strengthening of crop commodities. One such proposal is the option of participating in the Average Crop Revenue Program under Title I as an alternative to the traditional target price-based program. "I've been in favor of countercyclical programs, but this program, I think, is an ingenious way to move ahead to the future," said Harkin. "It gives farmers an option and a lot of flexibility."
• Support that focuses on new and minority farmers in response to the country's aging farmer base.
• Increased support for organic production. "Organic agriculture is the fastest growing segment of the food market. It's growing 20 percent a year," said Harkin. "To help farmers gain a foothold in organic farming, the farm bill proposes to provide transition payments." Added Brown, "The demand is there for organic farming, but that three-year window to get established is a problem. The farm bill helps farmers during that transition period."
Harkin and Brown reassured the farm forum crowd that Congress is working diligently to get a version of the 2008 Farm Bill passed before the current farm bill expires on March 15.