Farm Bill Field Hearing in Michigan

Senators Hear Michigan Perspectives for Next Farm Bill

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., share a laugh at the start of a field hearing on the next farm bill at Michigan State University on Friday. Stabenow chairs the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee and Boozman is the ranking member. (DTN photo by Chris Clayton)

EAST LANSING, Mich. (DTN) -- The chairwoman and ranking member of the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee said Friday they expect to work together to look at the agricultural and food-aid proposals in President Joe Biden's aid package released on Thursday.

As DTN reported, farmers would see higher USDA commodity loan rates and crop-insurance incentives to grow crops such as wheat and soybeans, as well as consider double-crop options, as part of a $500 million proposal in a Ukraine aid package released by the White House. (See https://www.dtnpf.com/…)

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., chairwoman of the committee, and Sen. John Boozman, the committee's ranking member, held a field hearing on the next farm bill Friday on the campus of Michigan State University. DTN asked about the aid package in a scrum with reporters after the hearing ended.

"What I've seen from what the president put forward is they are really talking about two pieces," Stabenow said. "One is to support farmers to produce more for export which -- given the current situation -- makes sense," Stabenow said.

The second piece would boost funding for international aid programs such as Food for Peace, which Stabenow said, "Are going to be critical, not only for Ukraine, but what is happening globally around the world."

Boozman said he hadn't seen the specific text of Biden's proposal yet, but added, "I know that the farm issue is critical," considering the volumes of commodities such as wheat and corn that Ukraine normally produces.

"I think most senators are committed to working with our allies," Boozman said. "That's not doing it alone, but giving them the humanitarian aid they need, giving them the weapon systems they need -- and again, this has come up with agriculture. So I want to look at it -- I'm not sure exactly what they want to do -- but it's certainly a problem."

The hearing itself included 17 people who testified about a broad range of crops, livestock, rural economic development and food aid within Michigan. Stabenow and Boozman said they noted repeated themes from the farmers, such as protecting crop insurance in the next farm bill.

"One thing that comes up over and over again is crop insurance, which is so critical," Stabenow said. "Weather is getting worse and worse, and our farmers -- they aren't asking for a handout -- what they want is help to make sure there is a backstop that helps them with their risks," Stabenow said.

Pointing to his own state of Arkansas, Boozman said agriculture accounts for about 25% of GDP in the state, making agriculture the top economic driver. "So the farm programs, building the safety nets, doing all of the things in the conservation programs that we talked about today -- it's all really about making a viable rural America for tomorrow."

CHALLENGES FOR BEGINNING FARMERS TO BUY LAND

Jake Isley, a farmer from Blissfield, Michigan, representing the Michigan Soybean Association, talked about current challenges for beginning farmers trying to buy ground. They are often competing now against private equity firms and others bidding up the price of land. This can easily push the total value of the land sale higher than Farm Service Agency financing limits of $600,000. The caps are not in line with the current market conditions, Isley said.

"A lot of beginning farmers, and farmers in general, are competing against large companies or organizations coming into buy that land," he said.

Juliette King McAvoy, representing King Orchards in Central Lake, Michigan, reiterated Isley's point as both called on Congress to revisit the loan limits. Her family's orchard is in an area of Michigan with a lot of tourism and development pressures that are now competing for land against farmers who grow fruits such as cherries and blueberries.

"I'm competing against a lot of developers for that lakeview land," McAvoy said. "That $600,000 cap only helps smaller operations. I could see $1.5 million to being a necessary amount to getting started in a fruit-growing region like mine."

McAvoy talked about crop losses and repeat challenges that fruit trees are seeing from more pests and disease pressures. Crop insurance for certain orchard trees has been critical and needs to be expanded, especially due to the long-term investment it takes to develop orchards.

"We can't change and start every year like other crops can," McAvoy said. She added, "There aren't a lot of business models that can withstand the kind of volatility we are experiencing."

EXTENSION, DAIRY PROGRAMS PRAISED

McAvoy and others also praised the importance of Extension programs such as those at Michigan State University to support farmers facing new disease pressures or other production challenges.

"The number of issues we are facing seems to be multiplying every year between new pests, new diseases," McAvoy said. She added "We are constantly looking for new ways to combat these issues and Michigan State University Extension is the first place we go."

Ashley Kennedy, a 240-head dairy farmer from Bad Axe, Michigan, testified about the dairy programs, saying she could not have come back to the third-generation farm operation without those programs. Kennedy praised the Dairy Margin Coverage program as "essential to our farm and family's financial success last year" and called attention to recent improvements that accounted for modest production increases and better reflect dairy farmer feed costs.

Still, Kennedy noted the havoc caused to dairy pricing because of the pandemic and the need to incorporate changes to federal milk pricing in the next farm bill. She said price changes to Class I milk cost dairy farmers $750 million during the last six months of 2020.

Kennedy told senators the DMC is a safety net for "true emergencies, for margin issues and all of those sorts of things."

FOOD AID PROGRAMS FEEDBACK

Speaking on food aid programs, Phil Knight, executive director of the Food Bank Council of Michigan, talked about his own trouble with needing food aid. Knight lost a job during the recession and found himself struggling to feed two teenage sons.

He got on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and supplemented that with support from local food banks.

"The $97 SNAP allotment was a life-saver for us," Knight said. He added, "I was ashamed yet relieved -- embarrassed, yet appreciative. The power of the food is evident and it helped stabilize our home."

In his current job, Knight said food aid has increased by 47% since the pandemic. Higher funding for SNAP helped, but that aid is going down.

"We are now seeing an increase in need," Knight said. He added, "The reality today means the high cost of food and transportation means less food available to distribute to our communities."

SUPPORT FOR CRITICAL CONSERVATION PROGRAMS

Several farmers and others championed USDA conservation programs, calling for more funding to hire staff at the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and ways to accelerate the application processes for conservation programs.

Glen Chown, executive director for the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, said conservation programs are critical in areas such as the northwestern Michigan "fruit belt" as a way to protect farmers from development pressures.

"We need to make sure our prime farmland and our valuable soils are protected -- permanently," Chown said.

All of the conservation programs "are critical, particularly in a rapidly changing world," he said. "We need to ramp up in the face of climate change."

Chown highlighted the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program as a way to keep working lands in production. Such programs can tie into the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) to work with coalitions of groups to protect land. The program, though, often has a lot more demand than funding.

"We are aware of numerous projects in several states that could conserve more than 130,000 acres of working lands and leverage at least $80 million in matching funds," Chown said. "That's a snapshot of what is at risk without robust funding of these programs."

Also noting average age of farmers in low 60s, "We are about to see a massive transfer of land and that is going to have enormous implications," Chown said.

Boozman said after the hearing the committee would likely hold a similar hearing in Arkansas, possibly in June.

You can watch the hearing and read the full written testimony at

https://www.agriculture.senate.gov/…

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

Chris Clayton