Q: What is the farm bill?
A: About every five years, Congress passes a comprehensive farm and food policy bill, covering a range of programs and provisions. The last farm bill, in 2008, contained 15 titles for commodity price and income supports, farm credit, trade, agricultural conservation, research, rural development, energy, and foreign and domestic food programs including food stamps and other food programs. Most of the federal spending for programs in the 2008 farm bill went to four of those titles. Nutrition accounted for 76 percent of the spending. Crop insurance was nine percent. Farm commodity support was seven percent. And, conservation was seven percent of spending in the farm bill, according to estimates from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
Q: What about the next farm bill?
A: Debate over the 2012 farm bill is underway. I'm a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, where several hearings have been held this year to prepare for new legislation. In August, I held three town meetings that focused on priorities for the new farm bill. Iowa farmers told me that they want crop insurance to be maintained even if other programs need to be reduced, given the federal budget crisis, because crop insurance is a necessary tool for managing risk. Farmers also are concerned about disproportionate cuts to the agriculture budget. As I've said, everything's got to be on the table in the effort to reduce deficits and control spending, but the agriculture budget should be treated fairly.
Q: How can farm commodity support be justified to taxpayers?
A: The safety net for American agriculture is a way to make sure the United States has continued access to the most abundant and affordable food supply in the world. Without a reliable food supply, nothing less than social cohesion and survival is in jeopardy. The food safety net needs to be effective, efficient and responsible. I hope the upcoming farm bill will include a farm-program reform that I've sought for a long time. My farm program payment limits initiative would put a hard cap and other safeguards on payments farmers can receive from the federal farm program, including requirements to make sure those who receive payments are actively engaged in the farming operation. The farm program was not designed to help big farmers get bigger but, today, 10 percent of the biggest farmers collect nearly 70 percent of total farm payments. That runs counter to the goal of the farm program, which is intended to help small and medium-sized farmers - who play an important role in producing America's food supply - weather the downturns in the agricultural economy. The farm program needs to focus on these farmers because when a farming operation gets larger, it's in a position to withstand tough years on its own. The trend in farm program payments going to big farmers also has a negative impact on the next generation of farmers. When 70 percent of farm payments go to 10 percent of farmers, it puts upward pressure on land prices and makes it a lot harder for smaller and beginning farmers to buy ground or afford to cash rent, which helps them get a foothold in farming.
Q: How else does Washington impact the family farm?
A: Just like other businesses and employers nationwide, farmers face headwind from heavy-handed regulations out of Washington. During my meetings with Iowans, I hear time and again from farmers fed up with the lack of common sense behind too many of those regulations, whether it's the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) trying to regulate the dust kicked up by the combine at harvest time or the U.S. Department of Transportation trying to treat locally-used farm vehicles like over-the-road semi-trailer trucks when it comes to licensing, permits and fees.
Farmers also need access the new market opportunities created by international trade agreements. Congress is still waiting for a chance to pass long-readied trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. Lawmakers can't act until the President submits the agreements. There's no doubt that Washington needs to open new doors for agriculture to overseas exports, to generate new economic activity and opportunity.
Iowa has a lot at stake in all of these areas. Our state is the number one producer of corn, soybeans, pork and eggs. Cow-calf operations in Iowa produce some of the finest beef cattle in the world. Iowa dairy farms are integral to communities statewide.
Friday, September 2, 2011