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Viewpoint: Rural America deserves stronger farm bill

By Gary Wertish

It is interesting what can happen in four years.

At the time of the last farm bill's writing in 2014, agriculture in the United States was, on the whole, doing fairly well. When commodity prices began taking a downturn in 2016, it became clear that the farm safety net wasn't enough to help farmers make ends meet, or help new ones get started. Farm income is now less than half of its total in 2014, and it's projected to reach $-1,316 on average for 2018.

Many family farmers are at risk of going out of business. They face uncertainty of what's going to become of the Renewable Fuels Standard, as well our trade agreements and possible trade wars. Agriculture is a strong part of our nation's economy and deserves an investment that helps family farmers.

Despite this, the partisan first draft of the farm bill published by the House Agriculture Committee, HR 2, lacked any significant changes to the farm safety net portion of the bill from the previous one. Farmers Union supports increasing reference prices for the Price Loss Coverage (PLC) program, as well as stronger price supports for dairy and a mechanism that manages our country's oversupply of milk. The programs should be implemented responsibly with payments directed solely to family farmers.

We also must ensure crop insurance remains part of the farm bill. Various organizations have spoken out against crop insurance in H.R. 2, but it's critical in an industry that relies on good weather for success. Crop insurance helps ensure family farmers will be able to remain in business, even if they have a weather-related crop failure.

Another part of the farm bill safety net is access to credit. Beginning farmers can access loans through the Farm Service Agency (FSA) to help them get started, and so can farmers who have fallen on difficult times. Unfortunately, HR 2 does not increase loan authority for FSA's overall loan portfolio or increase the direct loan program, the second of which often provides necessary credit to beginning farmers. As access to credit is one of the most frequently cited difficulties for beginning farmers, behind access to land and health insurance, it makes sense to improve that in the farm bill, if we want to keep farmers on the land.

Conservation programs are the farm bill's environmental safety net. Farmers turn to the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) for assistance in developing conservation plans and implementing practices on their land. However, HR 2 eliminates CSP completely, making it part of EQIP. This is a mistake.

Farmers should have more options for the environmental safety net, not fewer. The bill also removes mandatory funding for the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), which incentivizes farmers and rural businesses to improve energy efficiency and install clean energy on their operations. This part of the environmental safety net must remain funded as well.

The last safety net is the biggest part of the farm bill's funding and has had the most partisan debate — the Supplemental Nutrition Access Program (SNAP). It's a safety net not just for farmers, but for consumers, too. Those who fall on hard times can turn to SNAP to ensure they can get enough to eat while they get back on their feet. Most who use it are working already. Yet HR 2 makes these work requirements even stricter, which has cost bipartisan support of the bill.

The farm bill is the most important piece of legislation for rural America. It affects not just farmers, but consumers and rural communities, and is best when constructed in a bipartisan fashion. Our elected officials must work together to construct a safety net that can help farmers get through this time of low prices. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn. and Ranking Member of the House Agriculture Committee, has opposed the bill because it doesn't do enough for agriculture. Farmers Union agrees. We thank Rep. Peterson for his leadership in calling for a stronger farm bill.

We also thank Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, Minnesota Democrats on the Senate Agriculture Committee, for their time listening to rural Minnesotans over the past couple months.

With so much else to worry about, family farmers need a farm bill they know will support them.

Congress must do better than the present HR 2.

Gary Wertish is president of the Minnesota Farmers Union.