Wednesday, February 19, 2014

TOP STORY >> Agriculture gets lifeline

Leader senior staff writer

The good thing about the 2014 farm bill is that it’s finally passed and some of the uncertainty is resolved for Arkansas farmers who grow rice and other crops, according to Chuck Wilson, USARice Federation director of Arkansas field services at Stuttgart.

Wilson, state Agriculture Secretary Butch Calhoun and area farmers have all expressed relief and gratitude for the new bill.

Still, the devil is in the details, and Lonoke County farmer Dow Brantley says producers need to know more before planting time, which begins in mid-March.

“Now that we know what is in it, we can go to lending institutions and borrow the money to put in a crop,” Wilson said.

“Consumers as a whole should be pleased, as well,” he said. “A small amount is for farmers, a huge amount is for food stamps” and other programs.


“It’s something we need for stability for the food supply,” Wilson said. “That’s why the U.S. has the safest, most abundant food in the world.”

So the law is written, but the rules and policies interpreting those rules won’t all be complete for months. After the rules are written, the effect can be different than the intent, Wilson said.

The farm bill — the first in three years — included several changes, such as cuts of $8 billion in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program over the next 10 years.

Those cuts, in the “Eat and Heat” program, won’t affect Arkansans, according to the local Department of Human Services spokesperson, who says the state doesn’t operate that program.


Another thing that’s not in the bill  is direct payment for farmers. That is a shift toward various forms of insurance.

This farm bill has two options the previous bill didn’t. There are two routes for helping farmers — a revenue source and a production source.

One highlight of the new farm bill for farmers is that it raises target prices  so if they are not met, insurance will make up the difference.

The target price for corn was $2.63 a bushel last year, but has been raised more than a dollar to $3.70, according to Calhoun. That’s a 30 percent increase.


The bill raises the target price for rice from $10.50 a hundred weight to $14 and soybeans, previously targeted at $6 a bushel, is now at $8.40.
But farmers can’t sign up for anything yet, Calhoun said.

The USDA also is “working on some stuff” to help livestock producers recover from the 2012 drought, he said.

“The USA Rice Federation is working to get an understanding of the bill, and we’re going to have grower meetings,” according to Wilson, who said the dates and locations would soon be announced.

Wilson said farmers need the bill interpreted soon. Weather permitting, rice farmers start planting in just over a month. Every situation is different, he said, depending on wet or dry fields, size of the farm, the amount of preparation needed and other factors. Rice goes in as early as March 20 and some farmers would plant up to May.

Rice acreage was off significantly last year, he said. Farmers faced a long, wet spring then and acreage dropped to about one million acres, not only because weather but also because of high soybean and corn prices.


Acreage should be back up this year because soy and corn prices have fallen, Wilson said.
The support model is shifting to insurance, which is much more favorable to other commodities, Wilson said. It doesn’t work as well for rice, which is a heavily irrigated crop.

Calhoun says the USDA is working with insurers to come up with insurance that works better for rice farmers, by figuring in the high cost of energy to pump water for that heavily irrigated crop.


While much of the attention during the farm bill debate was centered on farm subsidies and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, both of which are important to thousands of Arkansans, the farm bill is much more than these two issues, according to Calhoun. 

“It would surprise many who don’t live and breathe agriculture, but this bill addresses such a broad range of issues that, at the end of the day, play a tremendous role in the well-being of all Arkansans and our state’s economy. The farm bill, in its entirety, is arguably the most critical piece of federal legislation for Arkansas’ economy and its people,” Calhoun said.

This bill provided major reforms to the commodity-support programs and the nutrition program, saving taxpayers roughly $23 billion. 

“The safety net programs provide a more level playing field with global competitors and help keep our farmers and ranchers in business, thus maintaining a safe, abundant and affordable domestically produced supply of food,” Calhoun said. 

Conservation — The bill provides cost-share assistance to producers who reserve farmland for wildlife habitat and implement soil and water conservation practices. 

Trade — The bill provides funding to help promote U.S. agriculture products and develop export markets around the globe. 

Nutrition — The bill provides food assistance for low-income families and school meals for children.  The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as the food stamp program) helps not only hungry, low income Americans, but also the agriculture and food processing industries as it allows for food purchases that would not happen otherwise. 

Credit — The bill provides affordable and accessible credit for farmers and rural businesses. This includes farm operations, housing, infrastructure development and other farm and rural business needs. 

Rural Development — The bill provides funding for economic-development projects in rural communities. Funding under this title goes towards rural broadband systems, rural housing, water and wastewater systems, and telemedicine.  It also includes rural business and industry loans and grants, which support small businesses and entrepreneurs.

Research — The bill provides funding for critical agriculture research in seed development, nutrition, conservation, marketing and best management practices.

Forestry — The bill provides funding for the forestry service and timber industry, including firefighting funds and forest pest management. 

Energy — The bill helps deliver electricity to rural communities and supports rural-electric cooperatives. It also provides support for renewable fuels from bio-based sources.

Horticulture — The bill contains numerous provisions that help specialty-crop producers of fruits, vegetables and other plants.
Miscellaneous — The Live-stock section supports food safety and inspection services for imported catfish.  It also provides disaster assistance for livestock producers through programs to help eradicate feral swine and supports disadvantaged and beginning farmers and ranchers to encourage new generations of food producers.