Farmers’ margins have changed substantially since the 2014 Farm Bill, prompting a need to strengthen the farm safety net, especially for dairy farmers, according to U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., a ranking member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.
Stabenow, who heralded the last farm bill through, joined Senate Ag Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., for a farm bill field hearing at Michigan State University's Saginaw Valley Research and Extension Center in Frankenmuth May 6. The 2014 Farm Bill expires September 2018.
The hearing, titled “Growing Jobs and Economic Opportunity: Perspectives on the 2018 Farm Bill from Michigan,” featured testimony from 16 witnesses from across the state.
Stabenow said the farm bill is critical to the economy, adding that the food and agriculture economy supports 16 million jobs across the country, including 1 out of 4 jobs in Michigan.
“Going into the 2018 Farm Bill, we know things have changed over the past few years,” she said. “Low prices have pinched margins and made it tough for many producers to make ends meet.”
Cuts would be detrimental to farmers and families, she said, while calling for additional risk management. “Right off the bat, we know we need to strengthen our farm safety net, particularly for our dairy farmers.”
Hot topics on the panel were strengthening crop insurance for all commodities and creating crop insurance for milk, as was streamlining regulations, providing access to labor, and strengthening exports, conservation and biobased programs.
This was the second listening session, as Roberts hosted the first in his home state of Kansas in February.
Roberts recognized that all commodities are struggling from multiple years of low prices. “We must make sure Washington understands the economic difference between then  and now,” he said.
He called on growers to embrace optimism and their ingenuity to weather trying times. “The debt exceeds 19 trillion — that’s 19 and 12 zeros,” he said. “We will have to continue to do more with less. … I have no doubt that we can craft a bill from producers’ [input] from across the countryside, and we can do it in a timely manner, so that you will know and be able to continue the good work that you’re doing.”
Crop insurance changes sought
As a witness, Darrin Siemen, a fourth‐generation family farmer and owner of Prime Land Farm in Harbor Beach, said the Margin Protection Program, created in the 2014 Farm Bill has failed to deliver the protection farmers need and expect. And even though dairy margins have been very tight the last two years, the program has actually made money for the government. “While MPP remains the right model for the future of our industry, changes are needed if Congress wants to prevent dairy farmers like me from going out of business.”
Specifically, Siemen said the MPP calculations for feed have “significantly changed” since it was written into law. This change “fundamentally altered the safety net designed by NMPF [National Milk Producers Federation] and other dairy leaders around the country,” he said.
Stabenow agreed, saying the MPP concept makes sense, but the numbers weren’t right. “We need to offer milk the opportunity to do what other commodities can do, which is to purchase crop insurance,” she said. “We’re working with the secretary to expand crop insurance. There is capacity to do that administratively through the crop insurance board. We’re working to see if we can get some help immediately this year.”
Siemen said if the MPP and the Livestock Gross Margin (LMG) programs were fixed and designed to work together, dairy farmers would step up and participate in the programs beyond the minimum coverage many are now carrying.
There was unanimous support for continual and increased crop insurance for all commodities from the witnesses.
Chris Alpers, a Michigan apple and cherry grower at Redpath Orchards in Lake Leelanau, said 75% of his apple crop is insured. “I have to limit my exposure to be able to justify my investment in the apple business,” he said.
In his area, where land is highly sought for development, property is going for $20,000 an acre. With up to $18,000 an acre invested into new trees with no crop return for three years, “producers and lenders need crop insurance. Without crop insurance tools, there is no way a young person could venture down that road with a clear mind; lenders would laugh at you,” he said.
Alpers also stressed the need for exports and protecting the provisions in NAFTA. “Nationally, 30% of our crop is sold overseas,” he added. Despite those critical concerns, he said the No. 1 issue is labor. “There is no insurance for labor,” he said. “I’ve seen crops wasting away on trees because of not being able to secure a domestic workforce or problems with H2A. It’s my single greatest concern.”
Pam Bouma Miller, owner of Hopyards of Kent in Greenville, echoed the need for labor, saying, “We lack a reliable workforce. Hops is a labor-intensive crop, and the labor pool is lingering fast.”
Panel urges streamlining of regulations
Streamlining regulations and making sure they make sense was a common message shared among panelists.
Janna Fritz, a corn, dry bean, soybean and wheat farmer from Bad Axe, said, “I believe one of the biggest regulatory challenges we face is freedom to operate relative to bringing new technologies into the market in the way of seed.”
As part of the Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) program, Alpers said he’s had to hire a part-time person to manage all the different inspections and paperwork now associated with farming. “I never thought there would be a day — and I know my dad didn’t — where you had to document all the wildlife that crosses your land in the cherry orchard. That’s a true story. I think tweaks can be made to these audits.”
Roberts brought a chuckle from the crowd when he asked what happens if you miss one.
Alpers said it’s largely dependent on how well the audit is going in general and the discretion of the auditor. “He might let one deer go by,” Alpers said.
Roberts called that utterly ridiculous.
Other regulation concerns centered around wetland certification, conservation compliance, inconsistencies with robotic dairy inspections, compliance with the Food Safety Modernization Act, financing for food processing and organic certification.
TOPICS OF CONCERN: Two panels of eight members gave comments during the hearing, regarding crop insurance, regulations, labor and more. (Photos courtesy of Michigan State University ANR Communications and Marketing)
Andy Snider, who raises turkeys, hogs, corn and soybeans in Hart, represented the Michigan Turkey Producers Cooperative. He said the GAP regulations to be certified were next to impossible — particularly at issue was the mandate for poultry to have outdoor “porches.”
Roberts said he asked USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue to delay the implementation of the rule, and on May 9, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service delayed the effective date of the rule to Nov. 14 to allow time for further consideration by USDA.
Michigan Sugar Co.’s board chairman, Rick Gerstenberger, who farms in Snover, said the farm bill needs to address unfair foreign trade practices, and that Mexican dumping could put younger growers, in particular, out of business.
Roberts said, “We have some problems, and we’re going to try and fix them.”
While testimony asked for changes in the farm bill, there was also support for existing programs. Representing the American Soybean Association and Michigan Soybean Association, David Williams, from W Farms in Elsie, emphasized the importance of farm bill conservation programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program, noting that both CSP and EQIP incentivize farmers to adopt better conservation practices within their operations.
Under CSP, Williams increased his cover crop acreage. And “the cost-sharing provided under EQIP helped us build a chemical and fertilizer containment facility, which assisted in our compliance with Michigan state water quality regulations.”
Williams also called for additional support for biobased programs and the products produced. “Every Ford car made in North America now contains soy in its seat cushions,” he said, also making note of the 4.2 billion jobs supported by the biobased economy in 2016.
MUCH INTEREST: More than 150 guests attending the second hearing on the Farm Bill, which is set to expire September 2018.
Adam Ingrao, a bee farmer and founder of the Michigan Farmer Veteran Coalition, said funding in the 2014 farm bill provided a critical connection to identifying farming as an opportunity for veterans. “The farm bill stands as a foundation for veterans, and we would like to build on the 2014 Farm Bill,” he said.
Jim Nugent, a fruit grower in Suttons Bay and chairman of the Michigan Tree Fruit Commission, underlined the need to continue funding research and Extension, as well as conservation easement programs that protect prime and unique farmland.
Others supported the Market Access Program, which 83 Michigan companies used to increase exports by more than $99 million last year, as well as the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, SNAP and the Double Up Food Bucks program, urban agriculture, forestry, and the Regional Conservation Partnership.