Farm bill discussed by state’s delegates

Lawmakers talk needs of farmers

From left, U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, U.S. Sen. John Boozman and U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, all R-Ark., are shown in these undated file photos.
From left, U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, U.S. Sen. John Boozman and U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, all R-Ark., are shown in these undated file photos.

STUTTGART -- Ensuring a financial safety net for farmers and supporting conservation efforts are goals that representatives of the state's congressional delegation said they will push for as they work on an updated farm bill.

They detailed the priorities in a panel discussion Thursday at the Arkansas Rice Annual Meeting in Stuttgart.

In terms of what will be important for the rice industry in the bill, Murray Miller with the office of U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman said Westerman will prioritize Title I and II programs.

Title I -- the commodities title of the farm bill -- sets reference prices for major commodity crops like rice, soybeans, corn and wheat, and it also includes a fixed rate loan program allowing producers to use eligible commodity crops as collateral.

Westerman will specifically prioritize the price loss coverage program, which is under the commodities title, and is a safety net to protect farmers from major drops in crop prices or revenue, Miller said.

Title II -- the conservation title of the bill -- helps farmers with conservation initiatives.

"I think enhancing those programs is hopefully on the radar and taking a look at reference prices ... and adjusting those perhaps," Miller said.

Westerman, a four-term representative, returned to the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources in January and was confirmed as chairman of the committee this legislative session.

"He's got a really full agenda ... but some of his main priorities as it relates to agriculture in terms of natural resources are definitely energy and water," Miller said, referencing the effects of last year's drought on farmer's energy costs to irrigate crops.

The U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry conducted hearings on the farm bill last year and included a stop in Jonesboro by committee Chair Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and ranking committee member Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark.

"These days you hear a lot of comments about sustainability, and for Sen. Boozman, the most important thing for stability and for sustainability is economic sustainability," said Fitzhugh Elder, U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee staff director for committee Republicans.

Elder said economic sustainability is a necessary component to environmental sustainability; farmers need to be able to maintain profitability in their operations and have a good safety net to effectively tackle the challenges of climate change, which means prioritizing Title I programs and crop insurance.

"First and foremost, we have to ensure there is an effective safety net through the Title 1 programs and through crop insurance to make sure that you are able to operate and insure yourself against the tremendous risk that you take every year when you ... put in a crop," Elder said.

Elder said Boozman's second priority is supporting conservation programs that make sense for farmers, such as targeting water quality and availability, drainage, soil quality and health.

"Conservation has to work for you and what your resource needs are," Elder said at the Thursday meeting. "Those things cannot take a back seat to things such as greenhouse gas emissions. While we agree that climate is important, we believe there are other things that also need to be funded properly."

Joe McFarlane with U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford's office said it will be important for the American rice industry to invest in and infiltrate international emerging markets.

McFarlane said Crawford also wants to keep Title 4 of the farm bill -- which covers nutrition programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) as well as other programs that help low-income Americans access affordable food -- in the bill.

Nutrition accounted for just over 75% of the total cost of the $428 billion farm bill passed in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture; the farm bill is considered every five years and was first passed in 1933. Conservation programs were added in 1985.

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