Lauren Waldrip Ward – Rice Federation Director
It’s a common misconception: The Farm Bill relates to agriculture and doesn’t affect the average American consumer. This could not be further from the truth.
The reality is, if you eat food, you need a farm bill.
Since 1933, the Farm Bill has provided affordable food. It began as a way to support farmers struggling as a result of the Great Depression and has evolved into an extensive omnibus bill comprised of 12 titles which outlines programs including nutrition, conservation, rural development, international food aid and more. Updated and reauthorized every five years, the current Farm Bill expired Sept. 30 of this year.
This bill accounts for a small bit of stability that our farmers count on to continue providing affordable food and fiber. Net farm income is down 50 percent over the past five years, and farm bankruptcy is up 39 percent over the past two years. Prices are volatile, markets are uncertain and regulations are burdensome. Arkansas growers accept these risks everyday just to produce a safe and quality food supply.
The risk our farmers assume is unparalleled in any other industry. Every single year, Arkansas growers sign multimillion dollar bank notes knowing markets could change overnight. Typically, greater risk leads to greater return, but as is evident by the declining farm economy, agriculture does not share this correlation, and our farmers do not reap a proportionate benefit.
In 2016, 515,270 Arkansans (over 17 percent) faced food insecurity, ranking us the second highest in the country. Farm bill programs help drive down food prices, and hungry Arkansans literally cannot afford otherwise. We all need a farm bill because we all need affordable food.
Some critics of the Farm Bill focus on the fact that sometimes farmers receive payments from the government as a function of the legislation. They call it “corporate welfare” or “subsidies.” In fact, this is a farm safety net, and that’s not just splitting hairs.
Many of our global competitors are able to put commodities on the market for what we all know is less than the cost of production. It’s easy to do when the government buys the seed and covers input costs for the farmers. That is a subsidy. That is illegal under WTO rules, and those practices are contributing to low prices and pushing our farmers to the brink of extinction.
What our Farm Bill is supposed to do is create that safety net that lets farmers – and importantly, the banks – know that no matter how low prices go, the U.S. government is guaranteeing that farmers will at least receive a minimum price for their crops. It’s low, and it’s sometimes below the cost of production, but it’s something. And no farmer wants that safety net triggered.
Like an actual tightrope walker or trapeze artist – it’s good to know the safety net is down there – but it would be best not to fall.
And the reason we, as Americans, want that safety net there for farmers is not just one of compassion for our fellow citizens – it’s a question of food security. If farmers get pushed out of business because of a depressed market as a result of market manipulation from other countries, or a devastating natural disaster, they won’t be back to grow food next year. And our food security is threatened. And food security means national security. Without stable food production inside our nation’s borders, we become dependent on other countries to supply our food. That position is counter to the leverage and freedom our food system currently provides. Payment programs outlined in the Farm Bill not only provide the safety net our farmers need, but also the security we need as U.S. citizens. We all need a farm bill because we all want to be safe.
Within the Conservation Title, 31 percent of rice acres in Arkansas alone have been or are enrolled in Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). Similarly, 15 percent of the state’s rice acres are or have been enrolled in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). These programs support the efforts our producers make to increase sustainability and help preserve our resources for generations to come. Farmers were the first conservationists, and these resources are crucial to their continued progress. Every farmer’s goal is to hand the land they work over to the next generation in better shape than they received it. And the Farm Bill helps them do that. We all need a farm bill because we care about the future.
Out of 56 congressional delegates assigned to the Farm Bill conference committee, Arkansas is strongly represented by an impressive three conferees: Sen. John Boozman, Rep. Rick Crawford and Rep. Bruce Westerman.
It’s no secret that agriculture is the backbone of our state. The rice industry alone contributes $6 billion in economic impact every year and provides over 25,000 jobs, which are crucial to rural communities. Every farmer generates an average of $1 million in economic activity. These activities are the lifeblood to farm towns all across Arkansas. When our farmers are successful, our rural communities thrive and our state as a whole succeeds as a result.
The farm bill is a jobs bill, an economic development bill, a rural sustainability bill, a conservation bill, a food security bill and a bill that touches every single American. We all need a farm bill.