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Without a doubt, shaping a new version of what is generally called the farm bill will be the top item on next year’s agenda for the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee.
The term “farm bill” is commonly used shorthand that conveys only a fraction of what the legislation is called upon to address. Of course, it is about the whole range of issues and challenges facing our nation’s farmers and ranchers. It also is legislation in which all Americans have a stake — from producing food and fiber to conserving natural resources, promoting rural growth and jobs, alleviating hunger and improving nutrition, and investing in food and agriculture research to, increasingly, securing our nation’s energy security.
It was an honor to be the committee’s chairman when we enacted the bipartisan Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002, and I’m pleased it has gotten generally good reviews.
There is good reason, though, why the 2002 farm bill, like its predecessors, was written for a limited period of time. That is because probably no sector is facing more rapid change and new challenges than food and agriculture. To the best of our ability, we must write food, agriculture and rural policy that anticipates and prepares for the future — not one that clings to the status quo or the past.
The new farm bill must embody a bold and creative vision, laying a solid foundation of sound food and agriculture policy plus increased opportunities, especially for young people, in America’s agriculture and rural communities — not only for the period of the next farm bill, but also for future generations.
A core mission of the farm bill is promoting profitability and income potential in agriculture. To better protect farm income, in 2002 we restored a “countercyclical” element to the farm program, which had been seriously eroded in the Freedom to Farm bill. There is a continuing need for a sound system to help agricultural producers survive the inevitable vagaries of markets and weather. We will seriously consider proposals for improving the farm income protection system.
The commodity-based programs have evolved over the years and undoubtedly will need to evolve further as circumstances and conditions change. Added to the dramatic changes in American agriculture is the increasing attention given to international effects of U.S. agriculture policy.
Even if a new World Trade Organization agreement is not imminent, there is no doubt we are headed toward farm policies that are less production- and trade-distorting. We must ensure that the next farm bill helps U.S. agricultural producers and rural communities prepare for that future reality.
It is a shame that some of the most forward-looking initiatives of the 2002 farm bill — which are most critical to helping U.S. agriculture and rural communities compete and succeed in the global arena — have suffered the most in budget cuts enacted since the farm bill was signed into law.
Billions of dollars have been taken away from initiatives to pay producers for conserving natural resources; to promote rural businesses, economic growth and jobs; to develop farm-based renewable energy; and to invest in critical food and agriculture research. For starters, we need to reverse this budgetary damage.
The past few years have clearly shown that energy security is at the heart of national security. The 2002 farm bill included, for the first time, a special title devoted to promoting the whole range of farm-based renewable energy as well as improved energy efficiency in agriculture and rural businesses. That title also requires all federal departments and agencies to give a preference to bio-based products in their procurement actions. We can and should substantially strengthen the energy title in the next farm bill.
There is consistent, widespread support among farmers, ranchers and the broader public for greater federal investment in agricultural conservation — to enhance water and air quality, reduce soil erosion and increase wildlife habitat, particularly on land in production. A critical step is reversing the severe budget cuts to the Conservation Security Program — an innovative new system of conservation incentive payments — so it can operate as a fully funded national program, as it was intended and enacted in the 2002 farm bill.
A major purpose of the farm bill is to boost the rural economy and the quality of life in rural communities through federal investments in business development, especially those that add value to farm commodities — job growth and essentials such as rural water and wastewater facilities and broadband communications.
Our investments for the future also must include research and development that will keep America’s competitive edge in producing food, fiber, renewable energy and bio-based products.
We also need to build on the steps taken in the 2002 farm bill and write a strong competition title to ensure open, fair and even-handed markets and contract arrangements for agricultural producers.
We also will look for ways to improve the Department of Agriculture’s efforts to improve nutrition and health and to fight hunger. With rates of food insecurity higher now than in 2000, we certainly should seek to improve assistance in ways such as foods stamps and emergency food benefits. We also ought to build on the success of the fruit and vegetable snack initiative for schools created in the 2002 farm bill.
Just as the 2002 farm bill was a bipartisan effort, I have every intention of working across the aisle on the new farm bill. With big challenges and big opportunities ahead, we are obliged to bypass ideology and focus on pragmatic solutions that work in the real world.
I am committed to keeping the lines of communication open to hear all the views of those interested in the next farm bill. Those ideas and suggestions will be tremendously valuable to my colleagues and me as we work on writing the next farm bill.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) is ranking member of the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee.