It’s often said that society is always only a few meals away from revolution. And that’s understandable. No one wants their family going hungry. It’s an underappreciated fact that agriculture is vital to our success and prosperity as a country. We’ve come to expect and often take for granted the wholesome and healthy foods that farmers and ranchers produce, which feed hundreds of millions of people in the United States and around the globe.
Federal agriculture policy can be tough to navigate, but one thing is clear: The safety net programs farmers and ranchers across rural America rely on affect every American’s continued access to the relatively affordable food we eat every day. These programs form the backbone of the farm bill, legislation that spells out the system the hardworking farmers and ranchers of America depend upon. While these programs are critical, so too is our responsibility as federal legislators to craft law that is fiscally responsible and respectful of taxpayer dollars.
Four years ago, I stood before my colleagues in the Senate and said I wouldn’t give up on trying to get reasonable reforms included in the next farm bill. I said I wouldn’t give up on this process and that I would take advantage of any opportunities presented to me. Opportunity is again knocking on the Senate’s door, and I will again answer by presenting common-sense reforms, such as enacting payment limits for farm subsidies, maintaining effective crop insurance programs and modernizing the Conservation Reserve Program.
An adequate and limited safety net stitches together the programs American agriculture needs and the responsibility we all have as |good stewards of taxpayer dollars in an era of $20 trillion in federal debt. The farm bill provides farmers with a number of programs to mitigate risk. But there’s a problem when 10 percent of farmers receive 70 percent of the benefits. What’s worse is that the 10 percent receiving most of these benefits are wealthy farmers who use the money to bid up land prices and keep young and beginning farmers from the business. As a farmer, citizen and legislator, I believe it’s wrong to expect or to allow the government to give unlimited support to my farm or any other farm.
Setting sound, enforceable payment limits for subsidies is a straightforward way to close loopholes that allow some farmers to exploit the system. They do this by using non-farming family members — or “managers” — to qualify for additional subsidies, paid by taxpayers. This practice is dishonest and ties up funds that could help young farmers get started in farming.
Allowing one non-farming family member or manager per entity to receive $125,000, or $250,000 if they’re married, in government money is more than generous. I introduced legislation that would fix this problem during the last farm bill debate. In fact, my payment limit reform legislation was adopted by a bipartisan vote of 75-24 in the Senate. An identical version introduced by Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., was adopted by a bipartisan vote of 230-194 in the House of Representatives. Despite its overwhelming support, the conference committee removed the language and passed a watered-down version in the final 2014 farm bill. To say this was disappointing would be an understatement. Intentionally allowing federal tax dollars to be exploited is wrong. It weakens public trust in government and could put important farm programs’ continued availability into question.
A new farm bill also must maintain an effective crop insurance program. Farm programs are designed to help farmers weather the storm during bad years and remain steady through the inherent risks associated with professional farming. The Conservation Reserve Program also must be addressed in a new farm bill. During my annual 99 county meetings and in hundreds of meetings I hold with Iowans every year, I often hear concerns about CRP’s impact on family farmers. When entire farms composed of productive farmland are enrolled in CRP at rental rates with which many farmers can’t compete, growth opportunities are lost and too many farmers are put at a disadvantage — particularly young and beginning farmers. CRP is an important program that offers landowners additional avenues to gain value from their land while providing environmental benefits to the surrounding areas, but it must be properly administered and stay true to its original intent.
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Congress missed an opportunity in 2014 to make meaningful, common-sense reforms to the farm bill that would have saved several hundred million dollars for taxpayers. Congress could use those savings to provide assistance to those who truly need help. Congress now has the chance to make up for that missed opportunity and do right by the agriculture community and American taxpayers as talks about a new farm bill begin.
I made a promise to Iowa farmers and all American taxpayers on the floor of the Senate in 2014 to never give up the fight to reform farm subsidy programs. I intend to keep that promise as Congress begins negotiating a new farm bill and will continue pushing for reforms that help family farmers and make the best and most efficient use of taxpayers’ money.
• U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley of New Hartford is a lifelong family farmer and a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, which is tasked with writing the next farm bill.