At a stressful time for U.S. farmers, the government’s efforts at calming the agricultural waters took center stage Thursday, when the heads of the U.S. Senate’s Agriculture Committee left Washington for the Midwest to solicit opinions on priorities for the next Farm Bill.
U.S. Sens. Pat Roberts, a Republican from Kansas, and Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan, heard from Midwest farmers at their first field hearing on the 2018 Farm Bill at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas.
Kansas Association of Wheat Growers President Kenneth Wood cited the destruction of his farm near Chapman, Kansas, last year as an example of why the federal crop insurance program needs to be protected.
“For most of us, crop insurance will not guarantee a good year, but it offers the promise of another year,” Wood said.
The importance of crop insurance, as part of a safety net for farmers, was mentioned by several of the producers who testified. But a Farm Bill includes much more than just programs to help farmers cope with hard times.
Farm Bills in the past have contained funding for two main concerns: federal nutrition programs like what are commonly known as “food stamps” and free or reduced-price school meals; and agricultural programs like subsidized crop insurance, disaster relief and conservation. The last Farm Bill wrote in spending for a projected $1 trillion over 10 years.
The current Farm Bill, finally signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2014 after a contentious lawmaking process, changed the main government support programs for farmers, emphasizing subsidized crop insurance and replacing direct payments to farmers with programs that are only triggered when prices or revenues fall (as has happened the past several years).
With both houses of Congress and the White House in Republican hands, it is unclear how lawmakers plan to shape a new bill. Budget hawks have in the past targeted the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps, for budget cutting. The government spends about $75 billion a year on programs in the Nutrition section of the Farm Bill, according to the Congressional Research Service. The fate of government programs that encourage land conservation and environmental measures is likely also up in the air.
Sen. Stabenow, the top Democrat on the Senate panel, warned against arbitrary cuts in the agriculture budget.
“We, in fact, created savings in the last Farm Bill,” Stabenow said. “We were the only ones that offered up savings – $23 billion in cuts in our own areas on the committee.”
Furthermore, Stabenow said, the Congressional Budget Office recently estimated that the current Farm Bill will save more than initially expected. The Agricultural Act of 2014 would lower budget deficits by $16.6 billion over a 10-year period, according to a January estimate by the CBO. The savings are mostly due a decline in the demand for food assistance as as the economy has improved.
“The safety net for families is working,” Stabenow said. “Now we need to make sure the safety net for farmers is working as well as it needs to work.”
Many in farm country worry that government support programs will not adequately prop up farmers, who are struggling through years of low prices and, in some cases, barely scratching out a profit.
“The hurt in farm country is real,” said freshman Rep. Roger Marshall in opening remarks at the hearing.
Marshall, a Republican, represents Kansas’ sprawling “Big First” congressional district, which covers roughly the western two-thirds of the state.
“For me, the downturn in the ag economy we all hear about becomes very real when I see the Kansas Farm Management Association reporting that net farm income in Kansas was less than $6,000 in 2015,” Marshall said. “I can’t imagine trying to raise a family on that income level. We know these levels will fall in 2016, and unless something drastically different happens, they’re going to fall even lower in 2017.”
Sen. Roberts, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, summed up the solution to that problem in a single word.
“Trade. We need to sell our product,” Roberts said. “We’ve got a lot of product on the ground out in western Kansas. We need to sell it. I think that’s the one area where we could quickly turn things around.”
Trade, however, is not managed directly through the Farm Bill, and the President Donald Trump campaigned on re-writing many of the trade deals farmers have depended on in recent years.
Lawmakers are just now turning their attention to crafting a new Farm Bill in earnest. The 2014 Farm Bill, officially the Agricultural Act of 2014, is slated to remain in force through September 2018, the end of the federal government’s fiscal year.
Harvest Public Media’s Jeremy Bernfeld contributed to this report.