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Farm groups seek stronger safety net in upcoming farm bill
Debt limit debate delaying work on bill in Congress
DES MOINES — Iowa farm groups and congressional representatives said a strong safety net for farmers is vital as Congress works to reauthorize the federal farm bill this year.
Increasing baseline funding for programs like crop insurance that help cover losses from natural disasters or low revenue would help farmers deal with high production costs and uncertain futures, said Iowa Farm Bureau Federation President Brent Johnson.
The federal farm bill is a sprawling legislative package reauthorized every five years that deals with farming, rural development, nutrition, conservation, forestry and more. It lays out several key farm programs, like the safety net programs, as well as agriculture research and nutrition assistance.
It was last passed in 2018, and will need to pass by fall of this year to keep certain programs functioning.
Production and input costs have increased significantly since 2020, with some steeply outpacing inflation, Johnson said.
“The cost of production right now … is higher than our expected revenue come this fall,” Johnson said. “And to deal with 200, 300 percent inflation, knowing that our cash flows are upside down currently, that puts real risk into communities.”
The production cost of corn in 2023 is estimated at between $930 and $1,115 an acre, according to a report from Iowa State University. In 2019, the same production was estimated to cost between $640 and $775 an acre.
Aaron Lehman, president of the Iowa Farmers Union, echoed the call for an updated safety net.
He also said the farm bill should address consolidation in the farming industry.
Lehmann attributed some of the increase in production costs to consolidation on both the input side and the markets farmers sell to.
According to the National Farmers Union’s 2023 policy book, four companies controlled 85 percent of the corn and 76 percent of the soybean seed market in 2015, and similar consolidation exists when it comes to pesticides and livestock.
“We think that this farm bill ought to include a competition title so that these marketplaces are transparent, and they deal with supply and demand forces rather than price manipulations that may be taking place,” he said.
Iowa delegation hears from farmers
Four members of Iowa’s congressional delegation — U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst and Reps. Randy Feenstra and Zach Nunn, all Republicans — sit on agriculture committees in Congress and have been participating in hearings and markups on the farm bill in the past year.
Feenstra, who represents Iowa’s northwest 4th District, said in an email that protecting crop insurance has been the top priority for farmers in his district.
“During every meeting that I’ve held, the top priority for our agricultural community remains strong protections for crop insurance. I agree 100 percent. We must maintain and strengthen crop insurance, particularly as we’ve endured devastating derechos, tornadoes, droughtsand floods over the last several years," he said.
He also said strengthening biofuel production, increasing foreign trade and promoting young farmers were among his goals for the bill.
A spokesperson for Ernst said the senator is looking to increase regulation on foreign investment in American farmland by updating the 1978 Agriculture Foreign Investment Disclosure Act.
She also wants to improve animal disease preparation, increase foreign trade and put more scrutiny on the U.S. Department of Agriculture spending, the spokesperson said.
Ernst said in an email she’s heard from Iowans about “areas where the federal government can do a better job of working with the agriculture community, not against them.”
Feenstra and Ernst also expressed varying levels of support for changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, the federal program, formerly known as “food stamps,” that provides money to low-income people to buy food.
Ernst's spokesperson said the senator is “looking at ways to ensure there is less fraud, waste and abuse in this program intended for the most vulnerable.”
Feenstra pointed to his support for the America Works Act, a bill backed by more than 40 House Republicans that would increase work requirements for SNAP.
Increasing work requirements for federal benefits is also a priority for House Republicans as they negotiate with Democrats over raising the nation’s debt ceiling and the issue is likely to come up again in the farm bill.
Debt limit delay
Iowa U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley said this month the delay in settling the debt limit dispute is delaying the writing of the farm bill.
He said Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., had floated delaying the bill until September, but Grassley said work should start earlier with spending estimates.
“It's just this simple: You put in what numbers you want to put in, and then you dial them up or down depending on what the top line of government spending is for ’24,” he told reporters this month.
Both Johnson and Lehmann, the leaders of Iowa’s two farmer organizations, said they worry about the delay and that any budget cuts could restrict the money available for farm programs.
“The farm bill only comes around once every five years as planned,” Johnson said. “To have it potentially follow up the debt ceiling conversations, to know that that conversation could potentially impact production agriculture and rural communities for the next five years, the life of this next farm bill, is a valid concern.
“It would be shortsighted to have the farm bill be drastically impacted by the debt ceiling conversations going on.”