What do we need in the new farm bill?
Listening sessions are underway for a new farm bill. What needs to be there and what doesn't?
Last week, Agweek reporter Noah Fish attended a farm bill listening session in Minnesota. He reported people talking about supporting crop insurance, wanting to see more support for small farmers and asking for continued funding for nutrition programs.
The farm bill, of course, is an important piece of legislation that really addresses far more than farming. The majority of funding in the bill goes to nutrition programs. While that's something that bothers some people, I've talked to experts in the past who explain those programs create demand and also help build coalitions with urban legislators (though, for the record, rural people use those nutrition programs just as much).
But on the purely agriculture side of the farm bill, what kind of policy would help our farmers and ranchers the most? I have three main thoughts:
It's pretty low-hanging fruit to say we need continued support for crop insurance. I think that's something everyone can agree on. But how about this:
We need to make sure crop insurance is truly serving the needs of farmers and taxpayers. Can farmers afford the coverage? Are the payouts enough to help them weather real disasters? Are there burdensome regulations that make it difficult to make good choices on how to insure crops? Are there adequate resources to make sure that everyone is playing fairly and reporting accurate yields in good years and bad?
Every good program can be improved, and crop insurance policy should reflect that.
Sometimes — and in the past few years in particular — it can seem like not a week goes by without some new, ad hoc program to pay farmers and ranchers for disasters. I include ranchers because a few programs have addressed rancher losses in recent years, but in reality, much of the assistance goes to row crops.
I would like to see policy that lays out a permanent policy for disasters that impact agriculture. How does one decide if crop insurance isn't going to be enough to cover the disaster? How much is too much assistance?
I don't mean to imply that farmers are using disaster funding poorly; I think the checks that have gone out generally have done a lot of good. But how does it look to the non-farming public to have federal money propping up businesses year after year? If the crop insurance program is adequate to deal with crop losses, then disaster assistance should be geared specifically and only to helping operations that aren't able to be covered by crop insurance or situations that aren't covered. There need to be rules, and they need to be consistent across the country.
We all know that the environment is a big deal to consumers. So much so, in fact, that an industry has started to grow up for businesses to pay off their environmental problems on the backs of farmers who have taken on new conservation practices. We've reported time and again that such carbon offset credit programs have tended to be confusing and hard to measure, and farmers who long have been involved in conservation and regenerative farming efforts can't always take advantage of them.
Our conservation programs need to be looked at as a way to get farmers to voluntarily look at their own practices. If there is a conservation practice that helps cut down on drought impact, for instance, could a farmer get a little break on crop insurance to use said practice? With the diverse agriculture across the nation, I'm sure that wouldn't be an easy lift. But if there are research-based ways to better care for the environment and agriculture's bottom line, wouldn't that be a good thing to enshrine in policy?
These are just some top-of-my-head thoughts, and I'm sure other people have far better ones. If you have an idea for farm bill policy, send us a letter to the editor.
Jenny Schlecht is Agweek's editor. She lives on a farm and ranch in Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 701-595-0425.