Dan Smith, a Lockney, Texas, cotton farmer, put the deteriorating state of American agriculture in perspective today in a House Agriculture Committee listening session at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas.
“This will be the fourth year in a row that I went into the crop year just hoping I could break even,” Smith said to an auditorium filled with fellow farmers, farm association representatives, bankers, ag related businesses, advocates for food banks, other rural community interests, and members of the House Ag Committee, including Chairman Mike Conaway and Ranking Member Colin Peterson.
“My back is against the wall,” Smith added. “We’ve got to have some help.”
Smith was one of several cotton farmers or cotton industry representatives who emphasized the critical need to put cotton back into Title I of the farm bill. He related an incident from two years ago, when he visited the John Deere cotton harvester manufacturing facility in Ames, Iowa. “We saw 16 module pickers,” he said. Tags on the machines, in various stages of completion, indicated that one was bound for Tennessee. “The others were all going to Brazil.” He admitted that he, and a lot of other West Texas cotton farmers, would like to have one of those machines, but at $700,000, “we can’t pay for them with 60 cent cotton.”
Smith made the point that Brazil, as a developing country, enjoys more liberal subsidy considerations than do cotton farmers in the U.S. “Here, cotton is not even in Title I of the farm bill,” he said.
FARMERS NEED HELP
“This will be my 43rd crop, and I grew up on the farm, so I’ve always been here. But if we don’t get some help, not only will young farmers not be able to get started, I may not be able to continue.”
Speaker after speaker implored ag committee members to put cotton back into Title I; to maintain at least the current level of support for crop insurance; to continue funding for conservation programs such as EQIP and CSP; retain the safety net measures enacted in the 2014 farm law, including Price Loss Coverage (PLC) and the Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC); and to support trade agreements that will help sell agricultural products.
Speakers also asked for more support for agricultural research, tweaks in safety net programs that speed up payments, and assistance with financing, especially for first-time or young farmers. Speakers representing the livestock industry asked for support to combat the fever tick and foot and mouth disease, and for trade agreements to reduce tariffs and open markets.
In addition to Conaway and Peterson committee members in attendance included Representatives Jodey Arrington (Texas-19); David Rouzer (NC-7); Roger Marshall (KS-1); Rodney Davis (IL-13); and Darren Soto (FL-9).
Russell Boening, president of the Texas Farm Bureau, described the dire situation American farmers face. “Net farm income is down about 50 percent, just in the last few years,” he said. That loss takes a big bite out of the nation’s gross domestic product.
Matt Huie, a Beeville, Texas, farmer and rancher, said PLC and ARC payment timing should be adjusted. Loses from the 2017 crop, for instance, will not be available until October, 2018. That long a lag between crop loss and reimbursement makes planning for the next crop and financing another crop extremely difficult, he said.
He also suggested that the option to choose between ARC and PLC creates confusion “We would be better with a system that combines PLC and ARC without the choice.”
He said financial exposure threatens many farmers, even those who are well established.
RESEARCH FUNDING HAS DIMINISHED
Richard Thorpe, president, Southwest Cattle Raisers, said the next farm bill should include “a strong research title. That was pulled back in the last two farm bills. We also need a strong conservation title, but programs such as EQIP and CSP need to be tweaked.”
The problem with those programs, he said, is that they work on a point system—the more investment a farmer makes on his own the more points he gets and the better his chances are of obtaining matching funds. He argued that some producers can’t afford larger investments or only need to do one or two practices—build a stock pond, for instance. “We need a system that provides more opportunity,” he said.
He also asked that the committee monitor trade agreements and “maintain a strong export market.”
He said disaster assistance, such as the livestock indemnity program and the livestock forage program, should be maintained, and noted that those programs were crucial in recent wildfire losses.
Rick Boyd, First United Bank, Lubbock, encouraged maintaining strong support for crop insurance to help banks finance farms and encouraged the committee to get cotton back into Title I.
TITLE I NO WINDFALL
Julie Holladay, Lubbock, Texas, representing Plains Cotton Growers, said, “It is imperative that cotton be included in Title I. That will not provide a windfall, but it will give us the ability to continue.”
She emphasized how important cotton is to the High Plains of Texas. On the farm she and her husband Shawn work, they provide income for five employees, multiple landowners and also contribute to the local economy through cotton gins, ag supply dealers and other businesses.
She said the investment they have made in their 10,000 acre cotton and peanut farm is threatened by declining prices and increasing production costs. “Over the last three years, the farm economy has witnessed the steepest decline since the Great Depression,” she said.
Lindsay Bowers, a grain farmer from the Texas Gulf Coast, said with recent deep declines in corn prices, farmers last year sold corn for about $2.30 a bushel, losing about $150 per acre. “And crop insurance did not help a lot of those producers. It is hard to get financing; it’s hard for many to stay on their farm; and it is almost impossible for a young person to get started.
“We need price protection for farms as well as yield protection.”
Cody Carson, an Olton, Texas, corn, cotton, grain sorghum and edible bean farmer, said the ARC program should be tweaked to provide better continuity between counties. He also said that crop insurance coverage, under the current system, “is cost prohibitive for many growers.”
Tony Dill, a Brownfield peanut and cotton farmer, thanked the committee for including peanuts in the 2014 farm bill. “That offered price stability and a price floor to peanuts,” he said. He also expressed concern about the future of agriculture, especially for younger farmers. He noted that five young farmers in the Brownfield area went out of business last year. “They grew cotton and could not cash flow,” he said. “We have no future if we don’t do something to help young farmers. They have no equity to depend on.”
SOUND FARM POLICY
David Clevenger, representing the Texas Wheat Board, told an anecdote about his father representing Texas sugar beets in 1978 farm bill discussions. “Sugar beet representatives are not here today,” he said. “Support went away because sugar was cheaper from other countries. That’s why we need sound farm policy. That sugar beet discussion was 40 years ago. In another 40 years, we may not have farm groups here if we don’t have sound policy. Tell that to the naysayers,” he said to applause from the crowd.
Jim Lowell, representing the Texas Cattle Feeders Association, said his organization does not want COOL (country of origin labeling mandates) in the next farm bill. “It provides no benefit,” he said, “and costs us.”
He noted that NAFTA negotiators should “First, do no harm. Mexico and Canada are two good markets for U.S. beef.”
He said the industry also needs a “workable guest worker program.”
Thomas Winn, a sixth generation rice farmer, said a historic downturn in rice prices and the rising cost of inputs created a significant challenge for rice farmers. “The safety net provided in the 2014 farm bill was a good tool. PLC worked, but payment timing should be improved.”
Wade Cowan, an eighth generation Texas farmer, fourth generation in West Texas, says his may be the last generation to farm. “I don’t think there will be a ninth generation,” he said. “The ag economy is that bad.”
He represented the soybean association and said the American soybean Association supports PLC and ARC, but those programs do not work particularly well on many diverse farms. “In many cases, we are better off with crop insurance,” he said.
Ben Scholtz, a Northeast Texas corn, wheat, and grain sorghum farmer, said the deep drop in commodity prices forces farmers to ask how they can stay in business. “Crop insurance is indispensable,” he said. Price protection, including programs like PLC and ARC, are important but producers also need strong commitments to supporting exports. “Financing is the third crucial factor,” he added.
CONTRIBUTION TO OVERALL ECONOMY
Eddie McBride, Lubbock Chamber of Commerce, said agriculture makes up a huge part of the High Plains economy, and cotton accounts for about 80 percent of the ag economic activity in the Lubbock area. Getting cotton back into Title I and continuing the ginning cost assistance program are important to the region, he said. “Agriculture is a vital part of the economy for the Lubbock area.”
Other speakers asked that the farm bill look at adding stability to farm programs, at least maintain or improve farm safety nets, and keep agriculture in mind with trade agreements.
Several representatives of food banks asked that the committee be mindful of how cuts in nutrition programs affect rural communities where resources, jobs and assistance are limited.
Chairman Conaway said the listening sessions will become part of the farm bill debate. “This is a great turnout today,” he said in introductory remarks. “We didn’t expect this many. Unfortunately, we will not get to all who want to speak, but we have your comments on cards and we will include those in the permanent record. Today, we are just lisening.We need your input.”