JOHNSON: Congress must create a stronger farm bill for our producersCongress is gearing up for a big discussion on federal ag policy as we turn our attention to drafting the 2012 farm bill. It won’t be easy.
By: U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson, Guest columnist
Congress is gearing up for a big discussion on federal ag policy as we turn our attention to drafting the 2012 farm bill. It won’t be easy. The tough budget climate means cuts will have to be made. We need to make sure the changes we make lead to more sound rural policy that puts our family farmers on a solid footing to compete with big corporations.
South Dakota’s agricultural producers have faced many challenges in recent years. They’ve dealt with extreme weather conditions, flooding, grasshopper infestations and livestock losses from predation, just to name a few. Despite all of this, they continue to do an incredible job of providing consumers with the most abundant, affordable, and safe food supply in the world.
No one knows better the strengths and weaknesses of the current farm bill more than producers. That’s why more than a year ago I sent my farm bill survey out to interested stakeholders statewide and featured it on my website. More than 1,000 people responded. I also recently completed a series of listening sessions across the state to hear firsthand what’s kept family farms and ranches up and running. This feedback has helped form my priorities for the reauthorization process.
We must maintain a strong safety net. These are the very same programs that seem to come under attack every time the farm bill is reauthorized. Make no mistake, we need to make funding cuts — the USDA is already expected to take a hit. But we cannot pull the rug out from under our producers. It’s important that Congress adjusts the current farm safety net structure for a leaner time, not eliminate it entirely.
One of the consistent messages I’ve heard is that our producers can do without direct payments as long as a strong crop insurance program is maintained. That’s why it’s so important that changes are made to make the program truly counter-cyclical in nature and there when times are tough.
Additionally, this should finally be the time that Congress decides to get serious about enacting meaningful payment limitations. I’ve been pushing this for years, but always came up against a brick wall of opposition. I recently joined with Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa to introduce legislation that would set a hard cap for payment limitations — at $250,000 for married couples — and close loopholes that are used to game the system. This legislation would save $1 billion over 10 years alone. We need this legislation included in the next farm bill.
Unfortunately, there are still many challenges facing implementation of Country-of-Origin Labeling. In fact, less than 23 percent of survey respondents told me they are seeing COOL labels in their grocery stores. We need to strengthen COOL and finally give consumers what they deserve — the right to know where their food comes from.
The next farm bill will set the path for our national agricultural agenda. But it’s just one piece of a larger puzzle — we’ll also need the funding in place to actually implement the legislation. My seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, and specifically on the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, gives our state a voice in this process.
As the reauthorization process picks up steam in Congress, I’m going to continue working with stakeholders in our state to evaluate our rural ag policy to develop sound ideas that balance our fiscal situation with the needs of family farmers and ranchers.