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Published May 17, 2011, 11:02 AM

Ag committee chair reinforces need for ‘safety net’

WASHINGTON — Recent natural disasters around the country show the need for continuing strong support for farmers in the 2012 farm bill, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow said May 12.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — Recent natural disasters around the country show the need for continuing strong support for farmers in the 2012 farm bill, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow said May 12.

“If there was ever evidence that we need an effective farm safety net, this is it,” Stabenow said in a speech to the CropLife America policy conference. She cited the following weather-related problems with this year’s crops:

- In Michigan: Cold and wet weather has slowed planting of many crops.

- In the Midwest: Heavy rains hinder planting, and flooding has devastated the Mississippi River valley

- Corn planting behind schedule: Only 40 percent of corn crops are in the ground now, compared with last year at this time.

- Wheat planting behind schedule: Only 10 percent of the spring crop has been planted, vs. 65 percent at this time last year.

- Severe drought in Southwestern Plains: Texas could lose half its winter wheat crop. Oklahoma also is affected.

- Flooding in the South: More than 140,000 acres of farmland was wiped out when levees were breached to save a town in Illinois.

“Despite all the advances in agriculture, farmers can still be wiped out through a few days of bad weather,” Stabenow said.

Challenge ahead

Budget constraints, however, will make writing the 2012 farm bill “very challenging,” she said, adding that her committee “will make sure we are stretching every dollar.”

“We know we’ve got tough decisions to make,” she said, but noted that those decisions should be made “by the folks who understand agriculture.”

Stabenow is known for her role as the author of the specialty crops title in the farm bill, but she told her audience, composed largely of agribusiness lobbyists, that “some of the best work is being done by people in this room.”

“We are never going to feed 7 billion people without American agriculture, and the number is going up to 8 (billion), 9 billion,” she added.

On the future of the specialty crops title, Stabenow said she would like to expand research and other services for fruit and vegetable growers, but only will guarantee that the title will not go backwards.

“I know what I would like to do,” she said. “The question is whether we have the resources to do it.”

Small farmers need technical assistance to comply with the new Food and Drug Administration Food Safety Modernization Act, she said.

Stabenow also said she wants to simplify the average crop revenue assurance election program known as ACRE, to do a “better job” on crop insurance, to have strong titles on rural development and forestry, and to have a research title that includes advanced biofuels and healthy food.

Stabenow said the agriculture community has let the discussion of the farm bill “become narrow” and that has led to criticism of the bill.

“The farm bill is a jobs bill, she said.

“We should talk about it that way,” she said.

Stabenow said she plans to hold her first farm bill hearing in Washington within the next two weeks and that it will “look broadly at agriculture.”

Stabenow also has scheduled a farm bill hearing May 31 in East Lansing, Mich.