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Trust the farmer, says Vilsack, as senators warn of food shortages

Republican senators slammed the Biden administration on Thursday for high inflation nationwide and said the USDA should free American farmers to plant as much land as they want to avert a potential food crisis. “We’re all hammered with” inflation, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell told Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

“The world cannot afford for prime farmland to lie fallow,” said Arkansas Sen. John Boozman, in calling for the USDA to release cropland, penalty-free, from the Conservation Reserve, which pays landowners an annual rent to idle fragile cropland for 10 years or more. “I believe you can do more,” Boozman said at a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing with Vilsack.

“We think that farmers can be trusted to make the right decision,” replied Vilsack. Enrollment in the reserve will fall by 1 million acres this fall because high commodity prices are driving farmers to put more land into production. The USDA forecasts that this year’s wheat crop will sell for an average of $10.75 a bushel, the highest farm-gate price ever.

The USDA announced on Thursday that landowners could begin field work this summer — instead of waiting until Oct. 1, the usual starting date — on land that is scheduled to leave this reserve this year. Now they can harvest hay, prepare land for a return to production, or plant a fall crop following the end of the primary bird nesting season, which falls between July 1 and Aug. 1 in most of the country.

Boozman, the senior Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, has argued since March for the expeditious release of land from Conservation Reserve contracts as a response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the disruption in world supplies of wheat and vegetable oil. “What we don’t want to do is get ourselves in a situation like baby formula, with shortages,” he said.

The 2014 farm bill, written during a commodity boom, allowed landowners to terminate contracts without penalty. “We should give serious consideration to this penalty-free incentive again until grain production returns to normal,” said Boozman. “I believe this flexibility would allow potentially millions of acres to return to food production.”

Normally, early termination of a contract requires the landowner to repay all of their annual payments plus interest. Nearly 22.1 million acres are in the reserve at present.

The Conservation Reserve is one of the few tools available to the government to control crop production. Two weeks ago, the USDA said it would expand by more than 50% the number of counties where insurance is offered for double-cropping, such as planting soybeans immediately after harvesting winter wheat.

McConnell, Boozman, and other Republican members of the Agriculture Committee painted high inflation, soaring fertilizer, fuel, and seed costs, and supply chain disruptions as Biden administration failures.

“It [inflation] amounts to well over $5,000 of increased costs annually, including $780 in additional costs for food in a rural state like mine,” said McConnell. “Small businesses and family farms are getting hit at both ends. In every single conversation I’ve had with farmers in the last year, the burden of increased input costs has been right at the forefront.”

For many Americans, said Boozman, “all of their discretionary dollars are getting eaten up by gasoline, food, rent — the list goes on and on.”

To read Vilsack’s written testimony, click here.

Boozman’s opening statement is available here.

Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow’s opening statement is available here.

To watch a video of the hearing, click here.

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