Broadband, changes to crop insurance & alternative energy top stakeholders’ wish list for next Farm Bill

Broadband, changes to crop insurance & alternative energy top stakeholders’ wish list for next Farm Bill

The due date for the next Farm Bill may still be a year away, but stakeholders already are drawing up a laundry list of diverse requests that will require a “big tent approach” at a time when deeply divided political leaders appear unlikely to meet each other part way, industry insiders say. 

“This is an unusual and somewhat chaotic time in Washington. We don’t have a Secretary of Agriculture, yet, the committees haven’t really constituted themselves yet, we don’t have a budget from the executive branch and it could be the foggiest crystal ball that I have ever looked into in my time as a member of congress,” Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, told attendees at the Food Tank Summit in Washington, DC, when she was asked what the Farm Bill would include under the new administration.

But, that isn’t stopping her and others from drawing up a wish list of what they want the bill to include.

One priority for Pingree is support for small and medium farmers that could help lower the cost of entry into the profession and, hopefully, encourage more young people to farm.

This support could take the form of helping more farmers’ markets operate, encouraging the development of value-added products and the creation of more community supported agriculture programs, all of which are strategies that have worked well in Maine, Pingree said.

Another tool to help transition farms from an older generation to the younger one would be incentives in the Farm Bill to encourage planting fruit and vegetables which currently are mainly imported, said Kathleen Merrigan, executive director of sustainability at The George Washington University.

She also said the administration needs to actively engage younger people in the conversation about food and agriculture, to take jobs at USDA and to live in rural communities on farms and ranches.

Broadband and technological advances needed

Improved access to broadband Internet also is on Pingree’s wish list for the next Farm Bill.

“In a lot of farms, we know it is not easy to make a living and people often have to have two incomes. A second income that you can do because you are connected to the grid sometimes makes it possible for a family farm to continue,” she said.

Reinforcing the role of technology in agriculture, Kip Tom, the chairman of Tom Farms, added the Farm Bill also needs policy “that makes sure our resilient agriculture system that we have in this country [stays resilient] through research development, such as that person who develops a new molecule or discovers how to help us grow our crops better or more nutritionally or better for the environment.”

He added: “Our belief is some of this will be achieved through technology, because we have to do more with less resources.”

Crop insurance can be used as leverage

Crop insurance is another core component of the Farm Bill that likely could be better leveraged, several panelists agreed.

“Farmers need crop insurance and it is becoming more and more important after every Farm Bill iteration,” but “a big issue in this Farm Bill is are we going to continue crop insurance with very few strings attached? Or are we going to ask more of farmers and ranchers for environmental achievement in order to get that same subsidy for their crop insurance,” asked Merrigan.

She answered that crop insurance as offered now is a missed opportunity for influence.

Tom also suggested the Farm Bill needs to include additional tools to help crop insurance, which he said is a critical component of the American banking system.

 Pingree also recognized the potential for change through crop insurance in the Farm Bill, but she cautioned the subsidies need to go to areas where the US wants growth to occur.

Alternative energy

Alternative energy and urban agriculture are two other elements the panelists want to see addressed in the new Farm Bill.

Recognizing that urban agriculture is not going to feed the world or even a neighborhood block, Merrigan said it still deserves its own line in the Farm Bill because it connects urban consumers with farmers and acts as an education and community building point.

As for renewable energy, Matthew Herrick, senior vice president of Story Partners, said it is “very, very important to agricultural production right now” with many farmers turning to renewable energy production to revise additional income or offset operational costs.

But, he added, the White House has sent “a lot of mixed signals” about it which should be addressed in the Farm Bill. 

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