WOOSTER, Ohio — Senate Democrats continued their call for a new five-year farm bill and new market opportunities for U.S. farmers during a rural summit on agriculture held April 25 in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. The session was broadcast to reporters via webcast.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow said the 16 million people who work directly in agriculture — and rural communities across the country — depend on the farm bill for essential programs.
“We need your help to make sure that rural America and agriculture is a priority when it comes to the full House of Representatives,” she said.
The last farm bill expired in September, despite bipartisan work in the Senate and House Ag Committee to approve a new bill. An extension of the old farm bill was approved in January, which extends the bill through September.
House Republicans said the bill was not brought to a vote because it was unlikely to receive enough support. They said it saved too little, spent too much on food and nutrition programming and some Republicans took issue with the dairy price security provision, which would have sought to control supply during times of poor pricing.
While the summit was organized by Democrats, former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman said it’s important agriculture remain a bipartisan industry.
He said U.S. agriculture as a whole should be proud of the achievements the past few years.
“The last few years, overall, we’ve had the strongest agriculture that we’ve had in the last 60 years,” he said. “…The strongest farm prices, the highest land values, the lowest debt-to-asset ratio — the highest farm exports in history in the last three years.”
Glickman was agriculture secretary from 1995 to 2001. A big focus then and now was on rural development.
He said migration away from rural areas has begun to end and there is a growing opportunity in farm country. Prices are better, and he expects they’ll stay that way.
“That doesn’t mean we’re going to have Heaven on Earth in farm country,” he said. “But the days of farm programs largely being based on low prices, I think those days are really over.”
A new reality
Better farm markets are reshaping the way farm policy is written, he said, especially the farm bill.
“Congress is moving much more in the direction of good risk management programs, good crop insurance programs, that frankly ought to replace most of the existing farm programs that are out there, because if you have a much stronger farm economy then the government shouldn’t be sending out payments — by and large.”
The 2012 draft of the farm bill only allocates about 20 percent for farmers. The rest is scheduled for food stamps and nutrition assistance programs.
Some farmers and lawmakers have argued the two things should be separated, but Glickman said the farm program would likely not receive enough support if it stood on its own.
“From my perspective that would be a very serious political mistake. As it is, the political viability and public support for farm programs is, overall in this country, is weaker than it’s been in the past,” he said. “If you take away federal nutrition programs from that mix, you jeopardize a coalition which has been around for 60-70 years, which has allowed the public to support (this policy).”
Many of the senators who spoke said there is a need in Washington for more people who understand farming and have it in their background.
“Agriculture is a core strength in the U.S. economy,” said U.S. Senator Mark Pryor, D-Ark.
Pryor said agriculture is among the top three industries in every state. He serves on the Senate Agriculture Subcommittee and is working to make more investments in agriculture and ag-infrastructure.
He said lawmakers must make sure “when we do things in Washington ,we’re not leaving Rural America behind.”
One of Pryor’s top concerns is making sure that regulations make sense for farmers and reforming the ones that do not.
He said he plans to file a bipartisan bill he’s working on with U.S. Senator Rob Portman, R-Ohio, that would seek to reform unnecessary regulations.