By Tiffeny Owens
The Cullman Times
After operating for the past three years without a new farm bill for guidance, local farmers can enjoy a little bit of certainty with Congress’ passage of a slimmer bill last week.
With the bill, farmers across the country will continue to receive financial assistance — from Southern peanut growers to Midwest corn farmers and dairies around the country. The support is designed to provide a cushion in the face of unpredictable weather and market conditions.
However, the portion of the “farm bill” that directly affects agriculture makes up only a small slice of the nearly $100-billion-per-year appropriation. The large majority of the bill funds the food stamp program which aids 1 in 7 Americans — 47 million recipients in all.
Overall, the new bill is projected to save around $1.65 billion annually, with about 1 percent in annual savings, $800 million, coming from the food stamp program. For farmers, one of the most significant changes will be the redirection of $4.5 billion annually from the direct payment program into new subsidies that kick in when a farmer has losses.
Local farmers expressed relief for finally having legislation in place rather than having to rely on yearly extensions of the last farm bill.
“It gives us some certainty going forward for the next five years,” said Fairview farmer Ben Haynes who raises cattle and grows wheat, corn and soybeans with his father, Darrell, and brother, Bart. “It’s not perfect, but it allows us to make plans for the future. For the past three years, we’ve had to plant not knowing what we would have which is a bit unnerving.”
The bill has a stricter limit on the overall amount of money an individual farmer can receive — $125,000 in a year, when some programs were previously unrestricted.
In place of the direct payments, farmers of major row crops — mostly corn, soybeans, wheat and rice — will now be able to choose between subsidies that pay out when revenue drops or when prices drop. Cotton and dairy supports were overhauled to similarly pay out when farmers have losses. Those programs may kick in sooner than expected as some crop prices have started to drop in recent months.
Haynes said crop insurance is a critical safety net for farmers.
“As farmers, we’re not setting prices; the market determines that,” he said. “So having that insurance is very vital for farmers who can be very dependent on the weather and other factors. With the bill, there’s also more flexibility with that insurance.”
Another positive benefit Haynes sees is the beginnings of better insurance for tree (i.e. nuts) and fruit farmers. The insurance has traditionally been geared more toward row crop farmers.
The bill also sets policy for hundreds of smaller programs, subsidies, loans and grants — from research on wool to loans for honey producers to protections for the catfish industry. It will provide assistance for rural Internet services and boost organic agriculture.
Jeremy Calvert who grows produce in Bremen said he was glad the bill appropriated more money to research and development for fruits and vegetables.
“Our three major crops are peaches, tomatoes and strawberries,” he said. “The added investment for research and development of different fruit and vegetables varieties is going to be critical for our ability to compete. I think that aspect of the bill will be very beneficial to us.”
Even though the farm bill had been tied up on Capitol Hill over budget cuts, Haynes said a welcome surprise is the addition of a permanent disaster relief program for livestock. “That’s going to help a lot of people, like the people in Texas who lost cattle to extreme drought or those in South Dakota who lost cattle from early blizzards.”
Darrell Haynes said overall, he was pleased that the bill will offer farmers stability over the next few years.
“ It’s expensive to farm,” he said. “We spend $3,000 a day just to operate, and we’re a small family farm. We have grain and cows. Chicken and cows eat grain so if you can have stability in one segment, it helps the others. You can’t touch one with affecting the other.”
* Tiffeny Owens can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 356-734-2131, ext. 135.