U.S. Senate panel discusses spending on social media in upcoming farm bill

WASHINGTON — Members of the Senate Agriculture, Food and Forestry Committee argued Thursday over spending on crop insurance and disaster relief, foreseeing potential conflicts in the 2023 farm bill.

Lawmakers in both parties underscored their support at Thursday’s hearing for improved funding programs that protect underserved growers and factor future natural disasters into crop insurance negotiations.

“Farming remains one of the riskiest activities, and farmers still need these tools,” said Michigan Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow, chair of the committee. “We need to work together to create a farm support network that meets the needs of all our farmers.”

Republican committee members expressed concern about the amount of recent emergency aid spending. Senior committee member John Boozman of Arkansas said authorized farm billing programs are a better safety net than ad hoc assistance.

“We owe it to all Americans to keep agriculture from going under,” Buzman said. “We can’t just focus on certain programs and not others when all farm bill programs are needed to achieve economic sustainability for our farmers, ranchers and rural communities.”

The federal farm safety net is a set of policies that provide billions of dollars of risk protection and income support to American farmers every year. The programs protect producers from the financial impact of poor growing seasons, low market prices, and disaster relief.

From 2018 to 2021, average annual spending included $8.9 billion for the federal crop insurance program, $660 million for ongoing disaster relief programs, and $5.7 billion for commodities support programs.

If continued in the next farm bill, the Congressional Research Service estimates that the combined spending on federal crop insurance, farm commodity support, and agricultural disaster programs will be $13.4 billion annually over the next 9 years.

The USDA also provided more than $65 billion in special farm assistance from 2019 to 2023 to help farmers cope with trade wars, natural disasters, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Network Impact Assessment

USDA Assistant Secretary for Agricultural Production and Conservation Robert Bonney, Farm Services Agency Administrator Zach Ducheneau, and Risk Management Agency Administrator Marcia Bunger briefed the group on the current status of farm assistance programs.

Bonnie said the FSA has processed more than 350,000 claims totaling more than $8 billion in livestock and crop farmers payments to help offset losses from 2020 and 2021.

He added that the overall spending bill passed last year would allow about $10 billion in USDA special assistance annually in 2023, as it has in recent years.

Bonnie said crop insurance continues to be a “vital tool” for growers, and the department has made efforts to expand crop insurance options to a wider range of options.

Bunger spoke of the need to expand high-quality crop insurance policies to specialty and organic crop growers, as well as smaller businesses.

“My husband and I have been farming together for the past 40 years, and for the past 27 years, crop insurance has been a cornerstone of our business,” said Bunger. “I really like that all of these growers, whether they are novice farmers or veterans, follow the same policies that my husband and I used to use.”

Increasing equity, access to protection

Stabenov asked Bunger about how the Risk Management Agency plans to expand opportunities for specialty crop producers.

Bunger responded that the agency is holding stakeholder meetings across the country and is working to streamline the application process and lower insurance plan requirements for small farms.

Democratic Senator Tina Smith of Minnesota asked how the farm bill could improve access to credit and insurance programs for farmers of color.

Duchesneau responded that there must be a cultural shift within the agency, adjusting credit tests, using the resources of the Inflation Adjustment Act to make changes to credit, and lowering barriers such as excessive paperwork.

“We should strive to be a lender of first resort, not a lender of last resort,” Duchesneau said.

Disaster Planning

A number of senators have spoken about the imbalance of farm assistance resources between the farm bill and the special programs, raising concerns about unfairness and wasteful spending. Specialized farm payments to farmers have surpassed crop insurance payments between $70 billion and $3 billion over the past 6 years.

“The reality is that existing safety nets need to be strengthened and we need to find a better way to help producers faster,” Buzman said.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, noted that the crop insurance clause in the farm bill is one of the most funded. He asked if there was a better way to organize crop insurance to reduce the need for special funding.

Bonnie noted that reducing paperwork is key to ensuring that existing disaster programs roll out quickly in the Farm Bill, along with increased access to crop insurance and an uninsured disaster relief program.

However, Bonnie noted that while the USDA is structuring its special programs to recruit participants for crop insurance and disaster relief programs, interest in special programs is growing among growers.

“I think our job on the implementation side is to get them out as efficiently and as quickly as possible to help our manufacturers,” Bonnie said. “We are open to discussion.”

Solving the problem of foreign ownership

Republican Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa asked, in light of the recent China-suspected spy balloon incident, whether Congress could use the farm bill to modernize the Foreign Investment in Agriculture Disclosure Act.

Bonnie said the USDA’s monitoring and disclosure of foreign investment in agriculture is a “paper process” and the department lacks the tools to oversee this paperwork.

Republican Senator Mike Brown of Indiana asked if the USDA would agree to block land purchases in countries such as China, Iran, North Korea and Russia.

Bonnie said he would not block the purchases, but offered technical assistance in drafting legislation.

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