Before getting into the issues of drafting a new farm bill during tough economic times as Congress is expected to do next year, Bill Spiegel offered his guest panelists the opportunity to draw up their own personal list of things they would like to see included, sort of a Christmas wish list whispered into Santa’s ear rather than, as many in the room feared, into the ear of the Grinch himself.
The exercise allowed panelists to discuss their own perspectives as well as those of the agencies they represented on the reauthorization of the 2018 farm bill and what it might mean for Kansas. They included Lisa French, Watershed Project Coordinator, Cheney Lake Watershed Inc.; Jim French, Senior Advocacy Advisor, Center for Rural Affairs; David Schemm, Director of the Kansas Farm Service Agency; and Sandy Proctor, Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program Coordinator, Kansas State Research and Extension. Spiegel, editor of the High Plains Journal, moderated.
“Bridges to a New Farm Bill” was part of the Kansas Farmers Union 2017 convention held Dec. 1-2 in Emporia. The convention’s theme, “Bridges,” explored structures both real, such as the John Mack Bridge in Wichita—the longest James Barney Marsh Rainbow Bridge in Kansas and the second longest in the United States—and metaphorical, such as bridges between generations, within ourselves and toward progress.
For Lisa French, who admitted that she was more involved with the practical applications of programs than with policies, funding for conservation programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the CRP program, and others was on her list. “They’re always at risk of having some kind of reduction,” she said. “At this point I’d be happy just to see things kept even.”
Proctor agreed. “We want to hold the line and have an even keel,” she said. “There’s still a lot of need out there, and we will continue to have those needs.”
Adequate staffing and resources were on Schemm’s list. “Our goal is to make sure we can be efficient and effective when implementing the new programs Congress and this Administration passes,” he said. “The big wish list is that the FSA has those resources, because if we don’t, we can’t implement those programs as they were designed to be implemented.”
Drafting policies supporting local communities and the long-term health of the land was on Jim French’s list. The strength of the family farm system, coupled with environmental stewardship and risk management, were aspects the agency looked at in a farm bill. “We consider the long term health of the land to be firmly tied to people who can watch over the land,” he said. “Those policies have to be in place to strengthen, and not hinder, our rural communities.”
With the farm economy in bad shape now, particularly for commodity producers, Spiegel asked if there were positives or negatives in developing a farm bill during difficult economic conditions.
It was a mixed bag for Jim French. While negotiating in tough times makes its easier for legislators to see where the needs are, not all of those needs will be met. The good news is that the budget for the farm bill was flat-lined, he said. The bad news is that the budget could be evolutionary rather than revolutionary, ultimately costing as much as $10 billion from the $500 billion budget.
“If there is a good thing about low economic times, it’s that we see some of the safety net programs really being put to the test,” Proctor said. “We can see if they function correctly, and it allows a clear look at where some of the proposed cuts might be too deep.”
A big negative that Schemm is seeing within the FSA loan program is a surge in direct and guaranteed loans, including a loan program for beginning farmers, even as the agency struggles under a hiring freeze. “We’re concerned that we may not have the resources available to see the needs of producers,” he said.
The lack of resources held both positives and negatives for Lisa French. More resources were needed for safety net programs, and that in turn puts pressure on other programs that might not seem so important, she said. A drought in 2012 when she served with the Kansas Water Authority crystallized the public’s needs and the agency’s ability to meet them. The agency had a term for the situation: “Never waste a good crisis.”
Spiegel thought that was excellent advice, and applicable to his next segment. “There will be winners and losers in the next farm bill,” he said. “If there should be cuts, where should they be, and where should they not be? We can’t keep the status quo.”
The convention’s 2018 Farm Bill panel included moderator Bill Spiegel and panelists Jim French, Sandy Proctor, David Schemm, and Lisa French.
Increasing efficiency was a priority among the panelists. Within the conservation programs used by Lisa French, she could see things that needed to be preserved and others that weren’t that important. Others could stand modification. With about 20 percent of the Cheney Lake Watershed in CRP contracts, an option was needed to transition the grasslands into grazing land rather than into crop production. A new program that allows the conversion of marginal ground into grazing land with a smaller investment by the federal government shows promise, she said.
Determining cuts was both personal and subjective, Schemm said. An Australian producer once asked him how American pulls off a farm bill. Australia has no such program, so this was clearly a mystery to him. Schemm’s response summarized the deeply complex process to a manageable non-answer. “It’s a challenge every time,” he said. It’s also part of what he sees as national pride and national security. “In my belief, it’s part of the core foundation of a country to be strong, to have adequate food production and to have a stable society,” he said. He quoted Normal Borlaug, author of “The Green Revolution,” where he wrote, “You cannot build a peaceful world on empty stomachs.”
Creating efficiency within farm bill programs was an essential formula for going forward, Proctor said. “On some oversight programs, money has been less than ideally spent on management,” she said. “Let’s look at how things are overseen or managed.”
Jim French agreed. “We need to look at how our money is spent and prioritize,” he said. “There are ways we can use taxpayer money in an efficient way and one that supports family farms, and makes taxpayer money better spent.”
Spiegel’s next question involved food security and nutrition programs. There had been talk about separating the food program from the actual commodity titles and the amount of money that goes to producers, he said, but was it important to keep them together?
For Proctor it was an emphatic yes. In conversations with people on both sides of the issue, she said, the majority overwhelmingly believed that the two sectors needed to be connected for a solid farm bill to go forward. “Because as strongly as the need is for agriculture programs, the voting power in agricultural states is much smaller than in more urban states, and if they’re separated, there’s division,” she said.
It was important not to lose sight that food is an intrinsic part of the farm bill, Jim French said. “The farm bill is more than a farm bill,” he said. “If we look at rural population and rural influence, farmers are a very small percentage of the whole. We need to create those bridges that generate common understanding of how our vocations and our lifestyles in rural America are totally united in the goals to feed people, to create food security and to create a nutritious foundation, especially for our young people and mothers in the first 100 days.”
“Food and farming are one piece,” Lisa French said.
Speaking of food, there seemed to be substantial focus on the five percent of the farm bill that goes directly to commodity growers, Spiegel said. “In our kitchen, we don’t directly consume corn or soybeans or grain sorghum, but we do consume a lot of wheat products,” he said. “My wife tells me that fresh fruits and vegetables are too expensive. From a parent’s standpoint, it’s important that we not only give our kids enough food, but the right foods. How do we get funding toward these important nutrition items into the farm bill?”
In past farm bills there has been support for beginning and small farmer operations to supply more local fruits and vegetables, but there needs to be a demand for the products, Proctor said. “We know that increasing fruits and vegetables in what we eat is important to everybody, no matter if you’re on the farm or in the city,” she said. “And yet fruits and vegetables can be out of the financial reach of a lot of people. We need to increase the availability of those foods no matter how it happens, and have better access to nutritional foods in places where there are food deserts.”
Many of the programs such as the Value-added Producer Grant, the Rural Micro-Entrepreneur Assistance, farmers markets programs, voucher programs for seniors, WIC, and others have been added in the last 20 years, Jim French said, but they’re not mandatory and must be renewed with each bill. “We’ve made real gains, but we need to preserve them,” he said.
One of the biggest hurdles toward creating demand for fresh fruits and vegetables is that the prevalence of processed foods has created a generation of people who don’t know how to cook, Proctor said. While there are educational programs out there, it has been an uphill battle.
“Consumers can address it by buying less processed food,” she said, “but I don’t know how the farm bill can do it.”