Saturday, February 4, 2023

Another year, another Farm Bill

Betsy Ward
By Betsy Ward
President and CEO
USA Rice

A new Congress will be seated this month, and one of the biggest items to cross their desks will be the new Farm Bill.

Farm Bills are never easy, and considering this is likely to be the first Farm Bill to cross the trillion-dollar threshold, it’s bound to attract attention, along with criticism from those who lack a full understanding of farming. But despite the sticker shock, there are ample reasons for that hefty price tag. After all, the Farm Bill isn’t just for farmers—it affects the daily lives of all Americans and safeguards our nation’s food security and economy as whole. In fact, 84% of the expenditures don’t go to agriculture; it goes to nutrition programs.

The 2018 Farm Bill, while a success story for rice and for agriculture in general, was more of an evolution than a revolution—a tweak rather than an overhaul. But as I’m sure you’ll agree, in 2018 the world was radically different. Today’s Farm Bill must contend with an unprecedented set of global circumstances, and frankly, it’s in dire need of improvement.

Arkansas Senator John Boozman (left) speaks with Betsy Ward (right) during USA Rice’s series of visits with Members of Congress during the 2022 calendar year.

Since the current bill was enacted, the rice industry has faced one challenge after another: price stagnation in the face of skyrocketing input costs; supply chain disruptions due to covid, labor issues, inflation, and the war in Ukraine; hurricanes, floods, and drought; and unfair competition from India, which refuses to adhere to their WTO obligations. It’s not just rice farms that are impacted, but also mills, merchants, dryers, truck drivers, ag suppliers and the main street businesses of rural America that suffer too. 

The Farm Bill’s Price Loss Coverage (PLC) program has been an effective safety net for rice, but is not equipped to deal with the litany of challenges mentioned above. Updates to the safety net are badly needed, and rice farmers have made these improvements their priority.

Eligibility requirements for PLC assistance have become unnecessarily and arbitrarily burdensome, and are based on long outdated data. We need a dynamic PLC program that is responsive when prices stagnate and input costs spike. We need reference prices that take into account the true costs of production, which for rice are far higher than all other row crops. Additionally, payment limitations for this assistance have not kept pace with real world economics.

Farm Bill Conservation programs are critically important to rice farmers, but every rice-growing region across the country has unique growing conditions and utilizes different practices. There is no one-size-fits-all solution that applies to all regions. We approach sustainability as the wholistic, complex issue it is, and Farm Bill conservation programs must recognize the rice industry’s unique needs as well as our diverse benefits to the environment.

The Farm Bill’s Conservation Title should focus on locally-led, voluntary, and incentive-based conservation models, not regulations and mandates. It should make good business sense and be economically viable, benefiting both the environment and rural communities. And it should recognize that rice farmers were early adopters and advocates of these sustainability practices, and not take for granted that our industry has led the charge for the last 25 years.

USA Rice is dedicated to making sure the next Farm Bill works well for the rice industry. The USA Rice Farmers Board has approved the principles developed and refined by our Farm Policy Task Force throughout the year. We’re eager for our members to take these recommendations directly to Capitol Hill. Through visits with Members of Congress and testimonies before the House and Senate Ag Committees, we have already laid a solid foundation as we prepare to deliver a sound, unified message based on the real-world experience and expertise of rice farmers. 

I suppose you could say we’ve spent 2022 doing field work. It’s almost time to sow our principles. We’ll keep you updated.

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