Up-in-the-Air Farm Bill has this Farmer Up in Arms

Grain gridlock and globalization were hot topics of conversation when nearly 300 Iowa farmers and agribusiness industry leaders gathered July 22-23 for the 2013 Iowa Farm Bureau Economic Summit.

Attendees, like me, were reminded how important it is to prepare for the storm – whether that means increased global competition or rising land prices.  Panelists agreed the agricultural sector can expect changes in the months to come and only good planning will protect their sustainability.

“The consistent message was, ‘Make long-term plans and make sure you’re grounded in reality’,” said IFBF Director of Research and Commodity Services David Miller.  Risk management was certainly the most important take away.  With weather extremes and government policies, it will be critical for farmers keep their finances balanced and not get leveraged.

The one topic that stood out from all the rest for me was U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s talk about Farm Bill and his rationale for keeping it a “food and farm bill.”  This bill is really the Farm Bill only in title as 80% of the bill pertains to the food stamp program.  Now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP cost almost $80 billion last year – twice the amount it cost just five years ago.

Sec. Vilsack really, really emphasized the need to keep food stamps and farming in the same bill because, without SNAP, he says farmers have no clout.  (Does this remind anyone else of the comment he made about rural American becoming less and less relevant?)  He then went on to tell us how important the Farm Bill is.  Not only do Americans need food, but according to the Secretary, SNAP is a great program that creates jobs – and a market – for U.S. farmers.  Sec. Vilsack believes that the billions going into SNAP helps famers sell more food!

That reminds me… Last month the Senate Budget Committee reported that between food stamps, housing support, child care, Medicaid and other benefits, the average U.S. Household below the poverty line received $168/day in government support in Fiscal Year 2012.  However, the median U.S. household income averages $137.13/day.  Interesting facts, right?  Yet Secretary Vilsack claims there is very little abuse of the U.S. food stamp program.

Vilsack went on and on about how the Farm Bill benefits everyone, urban and rural.  I understand that SNAP is food and food is farming, but I can’t help but question why two programs with such merit couldn’t stand on independently.

Sec. Vilsack claims the Ag department would be split up between other agencies if we don’t keep the SNAP in the Farm Bill.  From his convincing arguments, one can see how persuasive he must have been as a practicing lawyer.  Vilsack strongly “sold” his ideas, and I’m afraid most people in the audience bought into everything he said.  No one challenged dared to challenge assumptions.  On why Congress needs to pass a unified farm bill and not separate the bill into nutrition and non-nutrition bills, here’s what he said during the Economic Summit:

“They’re not on the farms. They’re not producing the vast majority of what you produce. They don’t understand what you do. They have a hard time even appreciating what you do. When they send members to Congress and to the Senate, they may send folks who do not have an appreciation for what you do and those folks may find it hard to understand the importance of having a safety net: of why crop insurance is not just important for producers but it’s also important for the community where producers live. You’ve got to give them a reason why it’s important for them to think that a farm bill is more than a farm bill. They have to understand that it is a foods bill, that it is a jobs bill, that it will impact their constituents. If you separate those two things, you lose that leverage. You lose that capacity to convince, to persuade, to advocate. Why would you do that?”

Quite frankly, Vilsack knows from personal experience that many folks in Washington don’t understand farming.  Just because he holds the esteemed title of U.S. Secretary of Agriculture doesn’t mean he can appreciate what it’s like to place your future in the hands of God each spring when you plant seed in hopes of harvesting a bumper crop.

Obviously, food is important to everyone.  And everyone is titled to his or her opinion, but this is what makes it so difficult to move forward. How can we afford to spend more money? Do we cut programs? If so, which programs? Who will this affect and how!

I don’t have all the answers, but I will still be part of the conversation. You can bet that I will listen and I will share my thoughts, as well. Farming and food is relevant! More people need to understand that – especially the people we send to Washington, D.C.!