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Senator warns of farm-size conflict in farm bill negotiations

At the same time that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called for more attention to small and midsize farmers, who see limited revenue from agriculture, a key Southern senator cautioned on Thursday against “a small farm versus big farm conflict” in writing the new farm bill. Large-scale operators collect the lion’s share of U.S. farm subsidies at present because payments are tied to production volume.

Senate Agriculture Committee chair Debbie Stabenow said “all farm bill programs” would suffer from “reckless and indiscriminate mandatory budget cuts” proposed by some House Republicans. “We cannot go backward at a time when our farmers and families need us most,” said Stabenow at a hearing with Vilsack as the lead witness. Stabenow called for a stronger farm safety net and support of nutrition programs such as SNAP in the 2023 farm bill.

Net farm income, a USDA gauge of profitability, set back-to-back records in 2021 and 2022 and is forecast to be far above average this year, although a step down from last year. Farm sector equity, the difference between assets and debts, is forecast by the USDA to rise 5 percent this year. But production expenses would be the highest ever, and commodity prices are volatile.

“The current safety net does not reflect the current levels of risk taken on each year by those that provide the food, fiber, and fuel we all depend on,” said Arkansas Sen. John Boozman, the senior Republican on the committee.

“As we address these risks, it is critical that we not get consumed by a small farm versus big farm conflict,” he said. “All farms are valuable. This farm bill will not neglect the small nor punish the large.”

Small and midsize farmers rely heavily on off-farm income because they produce limited amounts of crops and livestock.

“Now this is not a small-versus-large situation. This is a situation where 90 percent of our farmers need help,” said Vilsack. He added that “while respecting the important role that large commercial-sized operations play … we’ve got to figure out how we can create more revenue streams for farmers, particularly those small and midsize producers.”

In speeches to farm groups, Vilsack has pointed to the administration’s $3.1 billion initiative on climate-smart commodities as an example of promising new income sources.

Republicans on the Senate Agriculture Committee were skeptical of the need for climate action and accused the Biden administration of excessive spending on pet programs. Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville said the USDA was preoccupied with boosting SNAP benefits and “obsessing over climate change.” Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst said corn-based ethanol “is a cheaper energy solution” than electric vehicles. Kansas Sen. Roger Marshall said the USDA had bent the rules to pay for its Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities initiative from a $30 billion reserve that also pays for farm supports.

“We never, ever put at risk” farm payments, responded Vilsack, who defended the propriety of the climate spending.

Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley said that “some or maybe all of us” Republicans on the committee “are working on tightening work requirements for SNAP recipients. I hope we would also look at work requirements” for farm subsidies. “I support farmers only receiving commodity payments if they are actively engaged in farming,” said Grassley.

Crop subsidies are limited to $125,000 per farmer, per year, but the limit is easily evaded.

“I will continue to fight to expand or strengthen crop insurance and the farm bill disaster programs for all farmers,” said Stabenow. “We must also assure that the farm bill continues to support the nutrition programs that provide a lifeline to millions of people and families across this country.”

In a prickly exchange, Boozman told Vilsack that the USDA had abused its authority when it recalculated the cost of a healthy diet in 2021, which resulted in a 25 percent increase in SNAP benefits from pre-pandemic levels. Vilsack, backed up by Stabenow, said the 2018 farm bill had ordered the review and did not require it to be cost-neutral, as previous updates were.

“We’re not bound by you finding loopholes to do what you wished,” said Boozman.

To watch a video of the hearing or to read Vilsack’s written testimony, click here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.

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