Autauga County farmer Harold Gaines stood with his sons Dan and Levi as he told leaders of the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee his priority for the 2018 farm bill Saturday morning.
“I want to be able to pass on this farm to the next generation and for them to be successful,” Gaines said as Sens. Luther Strange, R-Alabama, and Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, toured his farm.
Roberts chairs the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, and Strange is Alabama’s first senator on the committee since the late Howell Heflin 20 years ago.
The senators visited Gaines’ Autaugaville cotton and peanut farm before meeting with about 100 farmers at the Alabama Farmers Federation headquarters in Montgomery.
“This family is a great example of what folks can do to pass along the wonderful history that we have in farm families,” Roberts said. “We’ve been holding hearings all over the country and asking farmers
what’s working for the farm bill and what isn’t? We hope we can do a farm bill sooner rather than later so farmers can get some predictability and plan.”
One farm bill program not working for Gaines and other Alabama farmers is the Stacked Income Protection Plan (STAX) for Upland Cotton. Developed in the 2014 farm bill to be compliant with the World Trade Organization, many farmers say the program has failed to provide a financial safety net.
“We participated in the STAX program for two years, and it was probably the two hardest financial years cotton has been through,” Gaines said, “It provided virtually no safety net for us whatsoever, so this year we didn’t even participate in STAX.”
Federation President Jimmy Parnell said it’s important for Roberts to see how farm policy impacts Southern agriculture.
“We appreciate Sen. Strange serving on the Senate Ag Committee and bringing Chairman Roberts to meet with Alabama farmers,” he said. “The South has a significant number of crops and farming practices that are different from Sen. Roberts’ home state. We could go to Washington and talk about those differences, but there’s nothing like hearing from our farmers and seeing things first hand.
“Today was about building a friendship and ability to talk to each other about issues,” Parnell added. “We have that with Senator Strange and thank Senator Roberts for working to write a farm bill that serves farmers of all commodities and regions of the country.”
Strange pledged to be the voice for Alabama farmers in the U.S. Senate.
“For them to see first hand — touch and feel — the concerns of our farmers is really critical,” Strange said. “Farmers have to be profitable so they can continue to thrive and reinvest and attract the next generation of farmers into this wonderful career.”
Following the farm visit, Roberts and Strange had a roundtable discussion with Federation leaders, including a Farm Bill Committee appointed last month by Parnell. Members include Jeremy Calvert, Cullman County; Will Gilmer, Lamar County; Mark Kaiser, Baldwin County; Bob Luker, Talladega County; James Walker, Lauderdale County; and Ricky Wiggins, Covington County.
The senators also attended a luncheon, featuring Bishop’s Barbecue and other Alabama products, where they answered questions from about 100 Federation members across the state.
Roberts said his priorities for the 2018 farm bill include preserving crop insurance funding and enhancing international trade. But he admitted maintaining current spending levels will be a challenge.
“We’re going to be operating on a very strict and stringent budget,” Roberts said. “In this environment, we’ve just got to do more with less. Farmers are used to that.
“Most of all, farmers want stability and predictability,” he added. “This is the first time in a long time when all of the agriculture is going through a very rough patch. We’re not where we were back in 2008, thank the Lord, but we could get there from here, and we want to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Gaines said low commodity prices and rising production costs have put the squeeze on farmers.
“We’re just not financially able to expand or upgrade our equipment and technology,” he said. “We’ve not been able to keep pace with the investment we need to make to stay competitive and keep our production at a level it needs to be.”
Ironically, the vast majority of farm bill funding doesn’t go to farmers. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 80 percent of current farm-bill spending is for food stamps and nutrition programs. Crop insurance accounts for 8 percent; conservation, 6 percent; and commodity programs, 5 percent. Altogether, the Agricultural Act of 2014 (farm bill) was projected to cost $489 billion over five years.
The 2018 farm bill, which could dictate agriculture policy for six years, will be Roberts’ seventh. He is the only member of Congress to serve as chairman and ranking member of both the House and Senate agriculture committees. He praised Strange’s interest and enthusiasm on the committee.
“He’s admired on the committee,” Roberts said. “He’s doing his homework, and he’s going to be a mighty fine champion for Alabama on the Ag Committee.”
(By Jeff Helms, Alabama Farmers Federation)
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