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  • Catherine Kirchner

Opportunity to Regenerate American Farmlands with the 2023 Farm Bill

The question is, will we take advantage of the opportunity or push this problem down the road?



Since March of this year, (2022) stakeholder groups have been holding public committee meetings on the 12 different titles covered in the Farm Bill. I recently watched one of these meetings on crop insurance. Frankly, I found the conversation disappointing. The stakeholders that gave witness testimony were mostly representing the private sector insurance industry.


So, naturally, their position was that the current crop insurance program needs strengthened with more "support" (read "taxpayer funding"). They argued that the crop insurance program was the number one priority for the upcoming 2023 Farm Bill, and that it was farmers' number one strategy for risk mitigation and that it is fundamental in the protection of profitability for American farmers. Additionally, the 'expert witnesses' representing crop insurance agencies argued that most farmers are underinsured.


One comment from a cotton farmer in the south stood out, he shared that the atmosphere in his region was one of fear, feeling vulnerable and uncertain about the future. With inflation increasing the costs on conventional inputs like diesel, synthetic fertilizer, seed and equipment at a rate significantly higher than the inflation in most other sectors, and with the intense volatility of the commodities futures market, farmers are looking for ways to slow the bleeding from their operating budgets. He shared that crop insurance premiums might sadly be squeezed out of that dwindling budget.


Added to the conversation, were numerous recommendations from the witness testimonies that the crop insurance program should not be altered in any way to try and incentivize farmers to implement more environmentally friendly production practices. Why? In their view, the crop insurance program is too important to the profitability of a farm operation and these practices are 'as of yet not shown by science to make a difference.' Rather, they argue for an increase in public funding for crop insurance and farmers will naturally implement sustainable farming practices on their own.


One member of congress on the subcommittee advocated for pre-payments of disaster relief and that it is in the interest on consumers who want a stable food supply to work on the crop insurance program with a scalpel and not a sledge hammer.

 

Who's voices are drafting the next Farm Bill?


So here is the problem, if these are the voices representing the direction of the next Farm Bill we are definitely not going to seize the opportunity to regenerate our food supply or rural America. They're all just advocating for the status quo.


I haven't watched all the stakeholder meetings on all the titles/subcommittees but I would bet that everyone is there to advocate for more funding for their interests. And, that's the definition of unsustainable. Tax payer funding shouldn't be used as a Band-Aid to kick the root cause of our country's problems down the road.


Synthetic fertilizer costs aren't going to go down, GMO seed costs, fossil fuels, and equipment costs aren't going to go down. Furthermore, the current trend of subsidizing monocrops that require increasing amounts of pesticides and fertilizers to produce consistent or decreasing yields is hurling us towards a cliff of land degradation where we're losing topsoil at a rate of 5.8 tons per acre per year.


Those advocating for the status quo would have you believe that if we keep on keeping on then that will solve the problem for now. The Farm Bill is renewed about every five years. How much worse will our current problems be in five years?


As a taxpayer we need to be concerned and involved in how the Farm Bill is written, what's in it and the direction it's steering our food supply and our country's health by way of nutrition. Ever wonder why soda pop and potato chips are cheaper than broccoli and blueberries? The answer is the Farm Bill.


Ever wonder why small farms go under and the land is taken over and consolidated by neighboring larger farms that plant the same 2-4 commodity, GMO monocrops on the land? Also, we should consider that with fewer farms, you need fewer farmers which leads to the demise of small rural towns as people move away to pursue city jobs. Once again, the answer is the Farm Bill. This isn't just happening as a sign of the times and the result of scientific and technological "progress." This is done on purpose, systemically designed by those that hold the helicopter view of what's going on, incidentally, it's also the same entities and the only ones that are profiting from this system.


 

A stark example of conflicting interests and divergent agendas


Take for example, Georgia congressman Austin Scott who sits on the House Agriculture Committee. It's interesting that he is also personally invested in companies' like Bloom Energy, Plug Power Inc, Clean Energy Fuels Corp, and Fuelcell Energy Inc. These are all fuel cell companies that convert low pressure natural gas or biogas into electricity. The raw materials for this process is methane. Wait for it, and the methane is from anaerobic digester technology on large factory farms, dairies mostly.


It looks like this, large consolidated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) like dairies in California with on average15,000 cows create a lot of manure every day. And, managing all that manure creates a problem. The most common way to manage it is in large lagoons where the liquid manure is stored. These lagoons are oxygen free environments and leak a lot of methane, not to mention they don't make for lovely smelling neighbors.


And, that's where the anaerobic digester comes in, it's a giant tank system where the liquid manure is pumped inside and heated which causes the methane to rise to the top where it's collected as a natural gas to be burned for electricity or sold to companies in the fuel cell technology business.


These anaerobic digesters are expensive to build and to maintain, but that's where government subsidies, incentives, and grants come in to help. So, instead of putting funding into programs that support small grass-based, sustainable operations that are not polluting the local air, and waterways our Farm Bill is funding the worst polluters in what's a clear conflict of interest by our elected officials.

 

What a better direction could look like...


So, what can we do about it? The direction the Farm Bill should be pointing our country is one away from the highly centralized and fragile structure built on giant consolidated farms. We need to shift subsidies towards a much wider array of crops, so we can move away from monocultures. We need to incentivize environmentally sounds production practices and fund education on soil health.


The reality is crop insurance being the number one risk mitigation strategy is not a good thing especially when farmers can't afford the premiums. Furthermore, most farmers are already not profitable, they're up to their eyeballs in debt. The amount of debt carried by American farmers is at an all time high and only set to rise year-to-year.


Our farmlands can be more resilient if we focus on soil health, nutrient density and biodiversity. This focus could help buffer the effects of extreme weather, and reduce the frequency and intensity of floods and droughts. Imagine if we could lower farmer inputs and minimize their risk by spreading it across numerous crops and income streams. Then farmers could be more self-sufficient and profitable with fewer federal subsidies (instead of more). We should be moving towards more small farms so we can decentralize our food supply and make it more secure.


It's the previous decades of policies in the Farm Bill that have pushed farmers to take on more debt, to grow more monocrops, and to acquire more equipment at the expense of their land and their financial and mental wellbeing. They've pushed the idea that this is all necessary in order to feed a growing population. Only, there is a few problems with this storyline. It's true that the population is growing, but in our country there's no shortage of calories. In contrast, we're both overfed and undernourished.


If we're being honest, our farmers are being used as replaceable cogs in a military industrial machine and the worst part is those drafting these policies talk a big talk about being pro farmer while taking tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the companies that really benefit from the Farm Bill.


Okay, now comes the call to action part. If these issues get you hot and bothered like they do for me, and if you're tired of the degradation of rural America while foreign owned companies get rich at the expense of hard working farmers then it's time to pick up the phone. Call your congressman or congresswoman and tell them you want to see regenerative agriculture practices made a focus of the upcoming Farm Bill. For more details on what that might look like, check out Regenerate America and read the priorities they've listed that could help change the direction of America's farmlands for the better.


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