The process of putting together a new farm bill is now fully under way with the Senate Ag Committee joining the process by holding its first hearing. And Senate Ag Committee Chair Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) laid out what she sees guiding her panel as they begin the process of putting together their version of the next omnibus U.S. farm bill.
In her opening statement for the hearing, which featured testimony from the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Farmers Union and a panel of four farmers, Lincoln said there were five keys for the debate ahead:
“First, I am proud of our farmers and ranchers. They work hard. They put food on our table, clothes on our back, and fuel in our cars and trucks. But, today, our farmers and ranchers not only have to cope with unpredictable weather and unfair global markets, but they must also suffer from abuse on TV and in the newspapers from folks who really ought to know better than to bite the hand that feeds them. Our nation’s farmers and ranchers need to know that they will never have to apologize to this Chairman or this Committee. We appreciate the work you do every day and we are on your side.
“Second, these Farm Bill deliberations should not be a Washington command-and-control, top-to-bottom approach to policy. President Reagan used to say that ordinary people see things that work in principle and wonder if they work in practice, but economists see things that work in practice and wonder if they work in principle. In the same way, we in Washington may know what policies work in principle. But, it is our farmers and ranchers who know what works on the ground. The good Lord gave us two ears and one mouth. So, it is important that we use them in that proportion. And, it is also vitally important that the safety net features of the 2012 Farm Bill come from the kitchen tables of places like Stuttgart, Ark., and Cando, N.D., rather than tables like this one.
“Third, we need to look before we leap. More than anything else, I think most American farm and ranch families simply want steady, predictable, supportive policies coming out of Washington…and for us to otherwise get out of their way. Huge policy fluctuations, mixed signals coming out of Washington, and the uncertainty that these things create make it very difficult for our producers to compete, invest, and plan for the future. So, rather than start from scratch or from some newfangled idea cooked up in Washington or in some college professor’s office, we need to reassure our farmers and ranchers that we will start where we left off: the 2008 Farm Bill. If we can do better by our producers in 2012, great. But, if not, current law serves as the benchmark from which we will work.
“Fourth, we need to get more creative. The safety net provided under the 2008 Farm Bill is not perfect. It can and should be strengthened. But Congress does not even have to wait for 2012 for that to happen. In fact, Congress does not even have to act. For instance, back in 2000, Congress provided USDA with very broad authority to develop and approve new tools to help producers of all crops and from all regions better manage price, production, and revenue risks. We need to use this and other authorities to their absolute fullest. For example, if we could get every farmer in this country to 85% revenue insurance that is affordable, we would go a long way in filling the holes of the current safety net. I know my rice farmers are working toward this goal and I suspect farmers from other states are doing the same thing. Let’s make it happen.
“Finally, I was reading an article the other day about the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] and rethinking its objective to move away from promoting policies that discourage food and fiber production toward policies that help us meet the needs of a planet that will one day in the not too distant future host 9 billion people. I believe that this consideration needs to be our overarching objective as well. Too often, it takes a crisis to remind us of the essentials in life, basic as they may be. But I do not believe it is wise for us to wait for a crisis to value our domestic food and fiber production.
“Mike Rowe, the host of the popular TV program 'Dirty Jobs,' had this to say about the importance of production agriculture: 'All jobs rely on one of two industries—mining and agriculture. Every tangible thing our society needs is either pulled from the ground, or grown from the ground. Without these fundamental industries, there would be no jobs of any kind. There would be no economy. Civilization begins with miners and farmers, and polite society is only possible when skilled workers transform those raw materials into something useful or edible.' It is from this perspective that I will approach the 2012 farm bill."
So the farm bill process is now in full swing. The House side has moved to subcommittee hearings where lawmakers want to drill down to details of the current programs and what could make them better or if there are better alternatives out there to the programs put in place by the 2008 farm bill.
And as Lincoln's opening statement indicates, there is a lot for lawmakers to consider as they embark on this process of setting the nation's ag policy beyond the 2008 farm bill. And it would probably serve all lawmakers well to keep those keys Lincoln outlined in mind as they do their work in the coming weeks and months.