witnesses said during the first official farm bill field hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, held May 31 at Michigan State University's campus in East Lansing.
Focused on gathering input for crafting a 2012 farm bill, the field hearing, held in the home state of committee chairwoman Sen. Debbie Stabenow, drew more than 250 people and featured testimony by 15 diverse witnesses who represented a broad spectrum of farm bill interests. The current farm bill, adopted in 2008, expires on Sept. 30, 2012.
Among those who testified was Clark Gerstacker, of Midland, who farms 1,500 acres of corn, soybeans and dry edible beans on his family's four-generation centennial farm. Gerstacker said the farm has utilized a variety of farm bill programs over the years, including crop insurance, disaster assistance, commodity price supports and conservation programs.
Gerstacker said many of these programs can be improved and made more efficient in light of federal budget constraints, but he stressed that having access to risk management and crop insurance programs, "are vital and cannot be lost in the new farm bill."
"While farmers like me are eager to provide the safe, abundant and inexpensive food supply, we face increasing tumultuous markets that rise and fall with the wind," Gerstacker told Stabenow and Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, the Ranking Republican Member on the Agriculture Committee.
"At the same time that we encounter ever-changing market opportunities, farmers also face higher input costs, such as seed, fertilizer and fuel - all of which are necessary components of a year's harvest," says Gerstacker. "In addition to market volatility, farmers are also faced with the constant uncertainty of weather. We wait for the thaw, the sun, the rain, the heat - all of which are conditions completely out of our control. Each of these can present a make-it-or-break-it factor for our crop.
These factors force farmers to take on a considerable amount of risk annually, says Gerstacker. "The fact is we are faced with the task of providing feed and fuel for a growing world population. We cannot simply sit out a planting season until farming becomes more profitable," he adds.
"This is why the upcoming farm bill is so important," Gerstacker says. "It's not about providing income to less than 2% of the American population that farms. It's about ensuring that the same 2% can continue to provide affordable food to the other 98% of Americans who rely on them."
Fruit and vegetables
Ben LaCross, a fruit grower from Cedar and chairman of the American Farm Bureau Federation Young Farmers and Ranchers Committee, also emphasized the importance of continuing farm bill programs. Video of LaCross' testimony is featured on MFB's YouTube channel.
"Safety nets are crucial for farmers to be confident that the future of their farms won't be devastated by market or weather fluctuations," he says, adding that the farm bill plays a vital role in rural development.
"Rural development is a jobs initiative compounded with the benefits its gives farm families and the rural communities that are vital to our nation," says LaCross.
On the issue of specialty crops such as fruits and vegetables, LaCross praised the nutrition title of the current farm bill saying, "America's farmers growing nutritious food while the nutrition title gives consumers access to these foods. What harmony!" But he said there is room to improve the nutrition title in the 2012 farm bill.
"As a specialty crop grower whose fruit mainly goes into the processing market, it's very important that my crop be recognized as a healthy snack alternative," he says. "I was dismayed that dried cherries, a ready-to-eat form of our perishable crop, were excluded from the snack program."
Holding up examples of Michigan-produced dried cherries, dried apples and single-serve apple sauce, LaCross said value-added agriculture "is a significant driver of our state's and our nation's economy and canned, frozen, juiced, and dried fruits can be easily added to healthy menus."
"In our on-the-go lifestyles, ready-to-eat processed fruit gives consumers the convenience they want while the farmers' fruit gives them the nutrition they need," he said. "While fresh fruits and vegetables have their place on the nation's collective plate, so do processed fruits and vegetables. I urge your Senate committee to restore processed fruits and vegetables back into the snack program."
Turning to sugar, Ray VanDriessche, a Bay City sugar beet grower, urged the committee leaders to continue the federal sugar policy.
"Sugar is the only major commodity program that operates at no cost to taxpayers, and government projections through 2021 say it will remain at low cost over those years," says VanDriessche.
While the U.S. sugar industry has managed to operate efficiently over the years, the industry "has been under enormous stress," cautions VanDriessche. American-made sugar is an essential all-natural sweetener, preservative and bulking agent for about 70 percent of the nation's processed foods, he said, so "dependence on unreliable and unstable foreign suppliers is a threat to our food security."
VanDriessche added that 1,300 Michigan sugar beet growers bought two processing facilities in 2004 and merged to form the Michigan Sugar Co. grower cooperative, which is now the only sugar beet processing facility east of the Mississippi River.
"Our farmers took on substantial debt, with many of them mortgaging their farms to purchase the two companies and save the industry here in Michigan," he says. "The significance of that kind of commitment exemplifies why we need a strong farm policy to ensure that we have a viable industry to pass on to the next generation."
VanDriessche also took the opportunity to stress the importance of farm bill conservation programs. On his farm alone, he has used the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program and wetland restoration policies to control soil and water erosion and protect the water quality of the Saginaw Bay watershed.
The U.S. apple industry also needs support from farm bill programs because, among other things, invasive species threaten production, testified Julia Rothwell, of Belding Fruit Storage in Belding and chairwoman of the U.S. Apple Association.
"We have a critical need for research funding," she says, referring to the latest "monster" to threaten apples, the brown marmorated stink bug, which has been discovered in 30 states, including Michigan, and is spreading with more than 300 host crops including apples, cherries, peaches, grapes, tomatoes, corn and soybeans.
Rothwell said researchers are currently seeking about $10 million in farm bill assistance to use over the next five years in hopes of uncovering a control for the pest that would save "billions in agricultural production."
The brown marmorated stink bug "represents a real threat to the U.S. food supply," says Rothwell, adding, "I believe it is the greatest pest threat to agriculture in a generation."
Additional testimony and MFB input
During the three hours of testimony, the Senators also heard from MSU officials about the importance of research. Other testimony included the importance of federal supports when farmers seek alternative energy sources such as wind and solar power, an overhaul of U.S. dairy policy, the plight of low-income families as they seek healthy food options, lending conditions, and forestry and organic production.
For its part, the Michigan Farm Bureau submitted written testimony which reinforced many of the messages voiced by the witnesses.
"Farmers in Michigan support extending the concepts of the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008," wrote MFB. "The 2008 Farm Bill is not perfect but it provides a great baseline to begin crafting the next safety net. The ultimate goal is for the 2012 Farm Bill to help Michigan farmers continue to grow the most abundant, most affordable, and safest food supply in the world.
"This can be done by providing a strong and effective safety net that does not necessarily guarantee a profit. Farmers understand the budget pressures facing federal programs and we encourage action on bringing our national budget into balance and addressing the federal deficit. Farmers are prepared to do their role in making sure both financial goals are achieved but we also strongly believe that the sacrifice must be shared," meaning farmers should not face disproportionate cuts in the 2012 farm bill.
In comments at a news conference after the hearing, Stabenow and Roberts made remarks indicating they agree with Farm Bureau's position on farm bill spending.
"We don't want anything disproportionate. We'll take our fair share and farmers and ranchers want to do that," says Roberts.
He added: "Agriculture has a big bull's-eye on its back in regards to a (budget) target and reduced spending... I think it's a paradox and an enormous irony. Here we're in a position where we are going to have to feed over 9 billion people, or 6 billion, in the next couple of decades and why on earth would we do anything from a regulatory standpoint, or a tax standpoint, or a spending cuts standpoint to harm the person whose job it is to produce the food and fiber for this country and a very troubled and hungry world.
"That's the message we both (Roberts and Stabenow) have been trying to give to our fellow colleagues, and the leadership, and the president of the United States and administration."
Both Senators complimented the witnesses on their knowledge and expertise and said the field hearing was of tremendous value.
"You can't write a farm bill without sitting on the wagon side and listening to producers, regardless of who it is or whatever they're growing, and in Michigan you're growing everything," says Roberts.
Stabenow said farm bill hearings will continue throughout this year and into next year in Washington, D.C., as well as locations around the country. Stabenow said she also intends to conduct a number of listening sessions across Michigan to meet with local growers and community leaders.