Several principles will be guiding the process of putting together the next version of U.S. farm law, according to Senate Ag Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). She listed off several of those principles in her remarks to USDA's Annual Outlook Forum near Washington, DC.
First, Stabenow stressed that the farm bill really needs to be viewed as a jobs bill. "We should start with principles that will guide us as we evaluate what works and what doesn't in today's economy to address the unique challenges facing our farmers today and into the future Agriculture is much more efficient today than it was 80 years ago, but it's also more expensive, and therefore, more risky," she noted.
Creating the "most effective safety net and the best tools for managing risk" are at the top of Stabenow's list of principles to guide the next U.S. farm bill. "We have farmers sinking almost $300 per acre into the ground in the spring in the hopes that it will produce a valuable crop a few months later," she noted. "We need an effective safety net so that we aren't watching family businesses go under because of a few days of bad weather or other factors outside of your control. Growers and ranchers are also subject to market based risk and input risk. Input prices fluctuate, commodity prices fluctuate, and American growers are caught in the middle."
Trade and developing new markets for U.S. ag production overseas is a way to manage risk, Stabenow observed. "Ag exports are extremely strong, representing a major trade surplus for the United States and creating jobs -- in fact, the strength of our agricultural exports created nearly one million jobs in America last year," she detailed.
Simpler, smarter more streamlined farm programs also need to be developed, Stabenow said. Farmers "do not have the time to fill out a lot of paperwork or to try and understand a myriad of complex -- sometimes conflicting -- programs, much less try to explain them to bankers and landlords," she stated. "We can provide better service to farmers while also reducing their costs and respecting their time. That's why we want to look at what's working and what's not working, because we cannot afford to operate and manage many different programs that have questionable effectiveness."
Research and innovation is another "critical principle" relative to the new farm bill, Stabenow said. "American innovation is the reason we lead the world in agricultural production, and we need to continue increasing efficiencies so we can maintain our competitive advantage," she stressed. "We need to continue making smart investments in innovation and research to help make agriculture more efficient, more productive, and more profitable."
That also relates to another principle, which is that the Farm Bill must conserve and protect our land and water and continue provisions that help improve production on working land." Those efforts in the past have helped farmers " be more competitive in the global market -- when there are fewer inputs, there are fewer input costs," Stabenow noted. "It's also allowed landowners to add value to their operations by fostering wildlife habitat on working land. Conservation programs can also help farmers and ranchers deal with environmental challenges."
But an area which Stabenow said needs a focus before a farm bill is completed is in the area of regulation. "We need to sit down with the USDA and the EPA and address the concerns our growers and ranchers have with pending environmental regulations," Stabenow stated, adding that with Senate Ag Committee Ranking Member Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), she is setting up a working group with the USDA and the EPA on these issues. "We might need to remind them that country roads can sometimes be a little dusty, and there's not much we can do to change that," she observed.
In addition, Stabenow said that safe food, effective nutrition programs and energy independence also need to be focused on relative to the new farm bill.
On biofuels, Stabenow said there are "tremendous opportunities in bioenergy, including not only ethanol but methane digesters for dairy farmers, cellulosic biofuels from dedicated energy crops or corn stover, and biopower from forest waste."
And, Stabenow pledged that her panel will develop a farm bill "that continues to build on the strengths and successes of today’s agriculture and the talents of everyone in this room and across our country."