Farm income is down sharply, and federal assistance is not what it used to be. But the Farm Bureau is relying on its lobbying might to try to get agricultural producers an edge.
At the Arkansas Farm Policy Summit in Little Rock on March 29-30, the president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, Vincent “Zippy” Duvall, said the group’s emphasis in Washington is on easing burdensome regulations and trying to get trade agreements through Congress. In the meantime, he told AMP, “It’s going to up to that farmer to hang in there and tighten up his belt, and do the best job we can. I know everybody’s tired of hearing that, but we all have been through this cycle before, except for our young people.”
Young farmers and ranchers haven’t been through these times because the sector is emerging from an era of unprecedented prosperity. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service says net farm income peaked in 2013 at a recent high of $123.3 billion; in February, ERS forecast income at $54.8 billion, which would be a 14-year low.
That was on the minds of farm leaders who attended the Arkansas Farm Bureau’s first-ever Ag Summit in Little Rock. ArFB President Randy Veach of Manila called it a “reversal of our normal biennial trip to Washington, D.C. with our county presidents and county leaders,” when they meet with the congressional delegation and with administration officials. Veach said they couldn’t work out a time where they could see everybody — so instead, everybody came to them.
“It’s really a difficult situation, a difficult time for our farmers right now in Arkansas, and we’ve seen a drop in our livestock prices as well,” Veach told AMP. “One of the provisions that’s usually been there is we’ve had a good safety net that would help protect us when low prices are around, and now we don’t have that with this present Farm Bill. We’ll be talking with them about ways that they could tweak this Farm Bill that we have that would give some support, in this environment of low commodity prices.”
For the most part, farm interests want to leave the Farm Bill untouched, for fear Congress will take a meat axe to it. The U.S. House Agriculture Committee is already under the gun to cut $1 billion a year over 10 years from farm programs under the Republican leadership’s budget blueprint, but at the summit Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., expressed the hope Congress would move forward with a Continuing Resolution that would leave farm spending unchanged.
As an example of the balancing act they face, Crawford has been lobbying U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to declare cottonseed eligible for farm payments. Vilsack says he cannot do so, and Crawford told the audience the secretary is playing politics, noting “cotton is a decidedly red crop” on the partisan map. But, he said, Congress doesn’t want to try to clarify the status of the crop by amending the Farm Bill.
“As soon as we open that Farm Bill, we open up a can of worms that we can’t fix,” Crawford said.
And, while Duvall said his group would work to pass the Pacific Rim trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Crawford called it a “big loser for Arkansas.” He’s concerned with the provisions for rice, Arkansas’ most valuable crop, most of it grown in Crawford’s district.
He said, “With the TPP, there are just so few of us that are advocating for the rice industry that this is not a deal I can get comfortable with.”
An ArFB board member, Rusty Smith of Des Arc, said bad times have gotten worse; leading commodities marketer Bunge to close its operations on the White River, which will add to farmers’ transportation and storage costs.
“Eastern Arkansas is in a depressed situation,” he told AMP, but added he doesn’t want changes in the Farm Bill: “Everybody’s wanting to cut money, and we have no room to cut in ag right now.”