Farmers, conservationists share concerns at Farm Bill hearing in Jonesboro

by George Jared ([email protected]) 1,000 views 

Every five years, lawmakers formulate the nation’s farm bill, legislation that dictates how much support the federal government will provide for farmers across the country. The new bill will be formulated in 2023.

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., the chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry hosted a public meeting Friday (June 17) on the Arkansas State University campus to discuss with local and state leaders needs in the agriculture industry. She was joined by ranking committee member, U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., who is in line to become chairman of the influential panel should he win re-election this fall and Republicans take back the Senate.

“Our last Farm Bill passed with the most bipartisan support ever. The bipartisan tradition of holding field hearings provides crucial information as we begin the process of writing a new bill,” Stabenow said. “At our first field hearing in Michigan, we heard from farmers and others about how we can strengthen this important legislation, grow our economy, and meet serious new challenges facing our country.”

Panelists who testified wasted little time telling the senators that producers are facing dire circumstances this year. Input costs have doubled and, in some cases, tripled, Marianna farmer Nathan Reed said. Reed, the chairman of the American Cotton Producers, said prices have been up, but even the slightest dip could be disastrous for many farmers.

Recent hot weather is forcing farmers to irrigate earlier in the growing season which is adding more input costs, he added. Equipment and parts are also harder to find.

“On my farm, diesel and fertilizer prices have doubled … yesterday I spent $200,000 on diesel,” he said. “It’s vital for the U.S. to provide food and fiber while protecting the environment.”

Newport farmer Jennifer James, chair of the USA Rice Sustainability Committee, told committee members that rice farming in the U.S. is under siege. There are on average about 3 million rice acres farmed in the U.S. each year, and roughly half of those acres are farmed in Arkansas.

This year, the number of acres has dropped by 27% to around 2.2 million acres nationally, with Arkansas dropping down to 1 million acres. The input and supply chain problems plaguing row crops apply to rice, but the commodity prices for rice have not gone up.

Domestic rice producers suffer on world markets due to a lack of access, and other countries that heavily subsidize their rice farmers, she said. The dramatic drop in acres not only impacts the farmers, but supports businesses, such as rice mills that support the industry a whole, she added.

Farms, on average, are projected to lose $880,000 in net income in 2022, and that is not sustainable, James said.

“There is a crisis in the rice industry … we cannot afford to lose our domestic rice industry,” she said.

Soybean farmer Brad Doyle of Weiner said there was optimism last year after soybean prices started to increase. That optimism took a hit when input prices started to spiral upwards, he said.

Doyle, president of the American Soybean Association, thinks one way the federal government can help farmers is to provide better and more comprehensive crop insurance coverage. He said 90% of soybean farmers in Arkansas use crop insurance. Updating other components of the Farm Bill, such as reference prices will be key, too, he added.

Specialty crops, such as fruit, don’t garner as much attention as row crops in the Natural State, but farmer Mark Morgan of Clarksville said his family has grown peaches for generations. His family owns Peach Pickin Paradise. Morgan said the specialty crop insurance premiums are too high. He asked Stabenow and Boozman to consider better protection packages and risk management programs for the next farm bill.

As currently constituted, most farmers can’t withstand more than one or two bad years in a row, he said. He noted in the last two years that his farm got hit with damaging hail and a late season freeze. Other problems, such as finding high skilled labor is becoming more of a burden, he added.

Stabenow told Morgan she’s familiar with the challenges faced by specialty growers. Michigan farmers grow a number of specialty fruits, she said.

“Specialty crops are all very different, That’s one of the challenges we have,” she said.

Issues discussed were not just limited to farming. Arkansas Game and Fish Commissioner Ann Marie Doramus of Little Rock testified that outdoor tourism is a multi-billion industry in Arkansas. Waterfowl hunting alone contributes more than $200 million annually to the state’s economy.

A forest thinning strategy to prevent wildfires, and conservation programs to protect and promote wetlands and other habitats will be critical to Arkansas’ outdoor tourism industry in the years to come, Doramus said. The industry is growing and steps need to be taken to protect the environment needed to support the sector.

“In short, conservation issues are quality of life issues in Arkansas,” she said.

Kingwood Forestry Services Inc. President John McAlpine testified that the state’s foresters are facing a gauntlet of new challenges as the decade unfolds. Arkansas has roughly 19 million forested acres, and 83% of those lands are in private hands, he said.

His company helps about 400 land owners operate their lands. Voluntary conservation practices should be emphasized in the next bill, he said. About 78% of the state’s harvested timber volume comes from these private lands. The state ranks 10th in wood production nationwide.

New challenges include potential wildfire threats and the spread of invasive diseases and species. Those range from damaging insects to feral hogs, he added.

Arkansas has 42,000 farmers and ranchers, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The farmers plant about 14 million acres each year. The state ranks as the country’s 16th largest farm economy with $9.7 billion in gross receipts from crop and livestock sales, Boozman said. The economic output generated by the totality of the industry topped $92 billion in the state in 2021, he said. Nearly 495,000 jobs are directly or indirectly tied to the state’s food and agriculture industries, he added.

One problem in rural America is declining populations and that impacts the farm industry as well, he said. The next Farm Bill will have to address other quality of life metrics such as a lack of broadband in rural areas.

A key advantage to meetings like this is that lawmakers get to hear first-hand what’s impacting the people that the legislation they’re forming has an impact on, Boozman said.

“The best solutions come from the ground up,” he said.