NFU: Today’s safety net needs significant improvements

Patty Edelburg
National Farmers Union

Last month, the House Agriculture Committee advanced the 2018 Farm Bill to the full House. As the newly elected Vice President of National Farmers Union (NFU), I was coincidentally in town to introduce myself to members of both the House and Senate Agriculture Committees and reinforce the economic challenges facing family farmers and ranchers.

Patty Edelburg

The debate around the recent markup of the Farm Bill by the House Agriculture Committee has been well-reported across the country. Members of the committee repeatedly expressed appreciation for the significant challenges that farmers face during a historic decline in net farm income. Many of them expressed optimism that this bill will meet the needs of today’s struggling farmers. And in my conversations with them, they doubled down on the assertion that help is on its way.

While I don’t doubt the sincerity of their assessment, I remain concerned that the resources provided to the committee to write this bill are not sufficient to get the job done.

At the end of 2017, Congress passed tax cuts that will cost the government roughly $2 trillion in lost revenue. In 2018, they passed an omnibus spending package for the year that will cost $1.3 trillion. Yet when it comes to farmers and ranchers who are dealing with a severely depressed farm economy in its fifth year, congressional leadership insists that there is no new money to be had.

Farmers certainly understand the importance of reining in the national debt. But why are we widening the deficit, using legislative stimulus, when the overall economy is relatively healthy? There are early signs it’s simply overheating the economy. The government should scale back when times are good and step in when times are bad.  In agriculture the time to step up is now.  So why is the focus seemingly everywhere else?

For those of us in agriculture, a good price from the marketplace is preferred over government assistance. But when government assistance is made necessary, it needs to be meaningful for farmers. The programs farmers have given up in the name of deficit reduction, parity pricing and direct payments have given way to programs that track with prices and only provide support—often minimal—during tough times. Today’s safety net needs significant improvements. Farmers must have an adequate safety net, long-term sustainability, and the promotion of fair and diverse markets.

A farm bill that meets the needs of farmers must have increased resources for programs like the Price Loss Coverage and Dairy Margin Protection programs, which are failing farmers. Any new resources for these programs must be responsible to the taxpayer and means tested in order to direct benefits to small and medium sized producers. It must also promote long-term sustainability through investments in conservation programs.

Through incentives-based programs, farmers are able to build on existing stewardship efforts for the benefit of their farms and the taxpayers who enjoy healthier soil and water resources.

Lastly, agriculture, from input suppliers and elevators to equipment manufacturers and railroads, is extremely consolidated. Farmers have limited choices for almost every aspect of their operations. A farm bill that ensures fair and diverse markets for the benefit of producers is critical. We must build on the progress of local, regional, and specialty crop markets. We must also ensure that common-sense regulations, directed by Congress, are in place—and enforced—to protect farmers in a consolidated landscape.

Congress is quick to recognize the national security importance of agriculture and the entrepreneurship of farmers. Former USDA Secretary Vilsack said it best when he said “Every one of us that is not a farmer is not a farmer because we have farmers. We delegate the responsibility of feeding our families to a relatively small percentage of this country”. 

But too many of us take that for granted. We often hear that most Americans count on a farmer three times a day. But kind words and appreciation don’t pay the bills. We deserve a fair price, and in its absence, a strong safety net. Right now, American farmers need help. Their future—and the future of our nation’s food supply—depend on a strong farm bill that ensures the future of family farm agriculture. 

Edelburg milks 120 cows with her husband, Gary, and their children on their 350-acre Amherst, Wisconsin farm, Front-Page Holsteins. She is vice president of the National Farmers Union.