Conferees Must Restore Policy Certainty in New Farm Bill

September 6, 2018

News from USDA that net farm income is expected to drop this year some 13 percent below that recorded last year is only the latest reminder that Congress has to put together a farm bill that can help restore a U.S. agriculture sector that has suffered immensely over the past five years.

Senate and House conference committee members have begun meeting this week to hammer out what has traditionally been the U.S. government’s five-year farm policy. There are some wide variances between the two versions of farm legislation brought to the conference table. But given the huge challenges today’s farmers, ranchers and forestland owners are facing, including the disturbing trend of fast dropping income, it is critical that lawmakers come up with a bill that will ensure that the needs of those who work our lands are met.

The income figures are painful. USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) projects that net farm income – a “broad measure of profits,” the ERS says – is expected to reach only $65.7 billion this year, down $9.8 billion from the $75.5 billion earned last year. The 2018 number is more than the $61.6 billion low received in 2016, but it continues the downward slide in net farm income since the $123.8 billion earned in 2013 – a 53 percent decrease.

The current farm law adopted in 2014 expires at the end of this month, and while Congress has in the past simply extended the then existing law until a new farm bill could be worked out, lawmakers should know that America’s farmers, ranchers and forestland owners do not need any more uncertainty as they work to sustain their operations and meet the food, feed, fiber and energy needs of consumers here in the United States and around the world.

While congressional leaders, like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Senate Agriculture Secretary Pat Roberts (R-KS), say they want to get a farm bill done this month, Congress also faces the pressure of getting the major 2019 spending authorization bills out before the end of the fiscal year. Like the 2014 Farm Bill, the fiscal year will end on Sept. 30.

Lawmakers have returned from their August recess after hearing from those engaged in agricultural production that Congress must adopt policies to maximize solutions available from the land that take the sector into the 21st century and meet the growing challenges from a changing climate.

The economic downturn America’s farmers have experienced over the past half-decade demonstrates their vulnerability to changing conditions, including market forces roiled by White House-imposed tariffs on imports that are putting U.S. agriculture’s trade markets in the crosshairs.

Adding to the volatility in recent decades are changes in climate that have placed additional pressures on productivity, net farm income, and soil and water resources. Stakeholders have impressed upon policymakers the need to provide U.S. farmers, ranchers and forestland owners with the tools – programs, funding mechanisms, incentives, tax breaks and research, among others – needed to meet challenges that have only intensified over time.

The 2018 Farm Bill offers a window of opportunity for lawmakers to implement forward-thinking policy. It should incorporate provisions that promote adaptive land management tools and practices that give farmers the ability to intensify production to meet the needs of a global population expected to climb more than 30 percent over the next three decades, reaching nearly 10 billion people by 2050. Policies and programs to help make agricultural operations more resilient to the consequences of a changing climate, including extreme drought (and the wildfires that result), harsh flooding and other violent weather extremes, should also be included and funded.

Other examples of useful tools are policies and programs that promote production practices that allow farmers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (such as no-till and cover crops) and simultaneously improve profitability, including the production of biofuels that emit significantly less carbon dioxide than petroleum-based transportation fuels. These tools should also broaden the ability of growers to develop and implement management practices that can increase soil health.

Conferees should fully restore specific provisions of the farm bill, including the measure’s longstanding Energy Title and the mandatory funding that has offered a budgetary “safety net” for critical initiatives like the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP).

Provisions in the Conservation Title of the new farm bill – especially the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) – need to be reinforced to allow producers to better protect water resources and soil quality, while earning payments for cover crops, resource-conserving crop rotations, and management-intensive rotational grazing. The House version would kill the CSP, while the Senate version improves it.

These farm bill programs and others must be properly structured and funded so that they can provide U.S. producers the maximum ability to deliver the climate-smart agriculture solutions advocated by Solutions from the Land and others. SfL urges lawmakers to take the message that stakeholders have been delivering to them and adopt a strong farm bill that restores some certainty in their operations and prepares the sector for the decades ahead.

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