Future of American agriculture depends on 2018 farm bill

Future of American agriculture depends on 2018 farm bill
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There hasn’t been a more tumultuous time for the American family farmer in forty years.                                                                       

Escalating tensions between the U.S. and our trading partners are threatening to collapse domestic markets. Natural disasters as a result of climate change are ravaging entire agricultural regions across the country. And massive oversupply of most major commodities means farmers are earning less money than what it costs to grow and raise their crops and livestock. In fact, a majority of American farmers are projected to earn negative farm income this year, many for the second or third year in a row. 

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While volatility is nothing new for the resilient American farmer, the current combination of unstable markets, extreme weather events, and economic despair in the farm economy is rare. If significant action isn’t taken immediately to address these issues, thousands of family farmers will be forced to give up their livelihoods, their ways of life, and for many of them, the places they call home. Farm families who dedicate their lives to providing food, fiber and fuel for the rest of the country, who sustain our rural, suburban and urban communities, and who steward more than half of our nation’s land will not have the opportunity to farm anymore.

 

This significant action needs to start with the 2018 farm bill. 

Despite operating for decades under policies that favor fewer and larger farms, one saving grace for the American family farmer and her community has been the federal farm bill. The $800 billion piece of legislation serves as a tourniquet for the hemorrhaging of family farmers from the food system, and as the nutrition safety net for consumers who cannot afford to buy food. The current iteration of the farm bill expires in September. This will orphan programs that bolster both farmers’ and consumers’ safety nets. Until we fix the problems that ail our food system, the farm bill is the only legislation keeping many farmers and consumers afloat.

The promise, politically, for the farm bill is that it typically enjoys bipartisan support. Farm groups, conservationists, environmentalists, rural advocates and the nutrition community band together to pass a bill that is strongly opposed by the fringes of both parties. So far as each of these communities is willing to find compromise on where funding for farm and food programs should be spent, the farm bill has a shot at passage every five years. 

In 2014, Congress passed a Farm Bill that was reflective of the state of the farm economy at that time. Prices for farm products were high and the legislation was written to save Congress $23 billion over 10 years. Now, it is projected to save $100 billion.

Since that bill was written, net farm income plummeted 50 percent. The programs — designed for when prices were high — are failing to provide an adequate safety net now that prices are low. Some programs, especially those for dairy producers are failing farmers miserably. In fact, the U.S. is losing thousands of dairy farms every year while the program designed to protect dairy producers has failed to provide even mediocre assistance.

This farm bill must reflect the current reality of the farm economy. The farm safety net requires a significant increase in funding, and farmers need the fix now. Yet, congressional leadership has already ruled out allotting additional funding to the farm bill. They have significantly hamstrung House and Senate agriculture committee leadership’s ability to deal with the financial strife facing America’s family farmers.

This also has significant implications for others who rely on the farm bill. The 40 million consumers who receive vital food assistance from the nutrition title are staring down proposals that would drastically limit eligibility. Farmers who adopt environmentally friendly practices to conserve the land, air and water are now facing cuts to conservation programs. And the many farmers and consumers who benefit from thriving rural communities, farmers markets, renewable energy and value-added food programs could see funding completely eliminated.

All of this is even more troubling in light of the fact that Congress was willing to increase the federal deficit by $1.5 trillion to pass tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and corporations. Then in February, they again increased deficit spending by an additional $300 billion to pass a budget for the next two years. A status quo farm bill sends a very strong signal to America’s heartland that its economic and environmental well-being takes a backseat to other budget priorities. 

When a farmer visits his local grocery store today, it will cost him more to purchase one loaf of bread than he will make on a bushel of wheat that yields 60 loaves of bread for a multinational food corporation. We will lose a significant number of family farmers in the coming years if we don’t have a stronger safety net in place. While Congress can’t fix all of our food system issues in one fell swoop, they must start by passing a farm bill worthy of the men and women who feed, fuel and clothe our nation.

Roger Johnson is president of the National Farmers Union (NFU), a grassroots organization that represents nearly 200,000 family farmers, ranchers, fisherman and rural communities across the United States. Johnson is a third-generation farmer from Turtle Lake, North Dakota, and previously served as North Dakota agriculture commissioner. Follow NFU on Twitter at @NFUDC