As a resident of the community, I was pleased to learn that Manhattan, Kansas, is set to host the first Senate Agriculture Committee farm bill hearing – a fitting location chosen by my colleague Chairman Pat Roberts to kick off formal discussions on the challenges and opportunities in authorizing our next farm bill.
The hearing will offer an opportunity for farmers and ranchers to voice the concerns I heard during my townhall meetings in each of Kansas’ 105 counties during the last Congress. It’s clear that producers are hurting and the downturn in the farm economy is impacting rural America. Overall farm income has been cut in half since 2013 and is likely to continue to decline this year, making it one of the worst economic times in farm country since the Great Depression.
So far, the farm bill discussion has largely been focused on the unique challenges facing dairy and cotton producers. These farmers are important to Kansas and the country, and I am eager to be an ally in working toward solutions for these producers. But, let us not forget the farm crisis in the High Plains that has hit wheat and sorghum farmers especially hard. Acres planted to hard red winter wheat in Kansas are at the second lowest level in the past 100 years, reflecting the economic reality currently facing wheat producers. The threat of the sugarcane aphid to sorghum is making it harder to make a profit on the traditionally low-input crop, meaning acres may fall by another 30 percent this year.
The 2014 Farm Bill has been successful on many fronts by protecting crop insurance and renewing our commitment to agriculture research, conservation and rural development programs. However, economic stress in farm country has also exposed weaknesses in the current legislation. The next farm bill must address inequities between counties in the Agricultural Risk Coverage (ARC) program, provide stronger protection in Title I farm programs against extended periods of low prices, and reduce the threat of burdensome regulations that harm livestock producers.
While major revisions in farm policy are most appropriately addressed in the context of a farm bill, I’ve used my role on the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee to build on the successes of the 2014 Farm Bill, as well as attempt to address its shortcomings. The fiscal year 2017 Agriculture Appropriations bill increases agriculture research funding, expands food aid programs that export American commodities, and helps to avoid a credit crisis by making certain demand for USDA farm loans is satisfied. The bill also includes a pilot program aimed at reducing inequities in ARC payments and provides resources for USDA to establish a presence in Cuba to facilitate farmers’ ability to sell more food and agriculture products to the island nation.
There is no silver bullet to solve the High Plains farm crisis. Farmers have always dealt with changes in weather and volatile swings in commodity markets. However, if farmers from across the nation – cotton, livestock, wheat and rice producers included – stand shoulder-to-shoulder during the next farm bill, I’m confident we can work together to address the critical issues facing growers of every commodity.