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Uncertainty VS. Security: The Importance of Farm Policy

By Jayci Cave

Farm policy. Two simple words that encompass a variety of definitions. For the consumer, farm policy helps ensure a safe and affordable supply of food and fiber. For the American farmer, farm policy is the safety net that helps them in their annual dance with Mother Nature or many other factors outside of their control. However, no matter what farm policy means to you, one thing holds true: strong farm policy is imperative to the future of agriculture.

Currently, all eyes are on the 2018 Farm Bill. Will Congress be able to pass a Farm Bill before the current legislation expires? Will farmers maintain the strong, reliable safety net they need? Along with these questions, it is crucial to consider the importance of this single piece of legislation to the nation’s farmers. In short, what does farm policy mean to multi-generation farm families? The answer – security.

Following the passage of the 2014 Farm Bill, uncertainty swept the cotton industry. Cotton was removed from Title 1, and growers were left with no safety net to protect against financial and economic hardships. Steve Verett, Executive Vice President at Plains Cott

Farm Policy

From left to right: Kody Bessent, Johnie Reed, Stacy Smith, Senator Ted Cruz, Brent Nelson, Rex Kennedy, Steve Verett. Photo courtesy of Plains Cotton Growers.

on Growers, Inc., said there is now hope with cotton being returned to coverage under Title 1 of the Farm Bill.

“There is no doubt that the last three to five years have been pretty tough,” Verett said. “One was just the uncertainty we had for the first time in many, many years of not having a safety net in the Farm Bill. I would say we have a lot to be thankful for, and we are glad we have that. We are back in the Farm Bill and when prices stay low, we are going to have something that is going to help us there.”

Verett said farmers also have crop insurance to help protect against unpredictable weather.

“You can match the crop insurance to exactly what you need to try to provide the best risk management that you can,” Verett said. “Now does that solve all the problems? It doesn’t, but we have tools today that we haven’t had over the last three or four years to help us get through some of these times.”

Farm policy was started in the 1930s and was widely driven by suppressed economic times. Kody Bessent, Vice President of Operations and Legislative Affairs at PCG, said farm policy also has evolved over the years to adapt to where we are today. He said along with crop insurance, farm policy has slowly evolved to look more at price or revenue driven mechanisms as a safety net.

“It is important to have those tools because it allows us to compete in a global market where we see a lot of shifts in price, revenue, and supply and demand,” Bessent said. “It allows producers to compete in that market on a level playing field with other countries. It is important to be mindful of that.”

Despite its name, the Farm Bill serves more than just American farmers. It supports consumers as well. Without sound farm policy, consumers would not have the safe and affordable supply of food and fiber they are afforded today.

“It is a small amount of the budgetary expense, I would say, it takes to afford us the ability to spend the least amount of our disposable income on food and fiber,” Bessent said. “There is a very strong reason why we have the ability to do that – because we have farm policy that allows us to be a very large global exporter of our products rather than being reliant on other countries or markets to import, which could be at a detriment or a greater cost to us. That is one of the big reasons from a consumer-driven standpoint why they should have a greater appreciation for farm policy, because it does provide us the ability to use the least amount of our disposable income on food and fiber.”

PCG Advocates For Cotton Growers

Individual farmers are not alone in their efforts to advocate for strong, effective farm policy. There are many local, regional, state and national organizations leading the way. At each of these organizations are people who are passionate about the future of agriculture. Verett said at PCG, they have a vested interest in their work because of their personal, direct ties to farming.

“I am not saying that somebody can’t do this job that hasn’t been on the farm or have a farming background in it, but I can tell you for me it is personal,” Verett said. “It makes it very personal. And the fact that I am not there on a daily basis anymore – none of us here are, this is our full-time job, but whether it is our brother or our son or whoever it may be, our parents that are directly involved in it, it is more than just a job. We believe in this industry. We know the importance of it, we know the struggles, we know the challenges farmers face and so that is what we think about when we come to work every day. How can we do the best job we can of representing those folks and telling their story and also talking about the economic importance of what our folks do for this region, our state and our nation as well?”

Bessent said his farming background gives him a greater understanding of what producers are going through.

“Having a good base of my farming background as well as the implications of our actions allows me to speak in greater influence whether we are in D.C.
or Austin working on state and federal issues,” Bessent said. “It allows me to have a full understanding of what is taking place versus learning about it off the cuff or from a different avenue. It allows me to be more passionate about it too because it allows me to speak from true experience.”

What Can You Do? Get Involved

Verett said no one is more qualified to tell agriculture’s story than the farmers who live it daily. If you don’t tell your story, someone else will, and they may tell it wrong.

“We have the ability to do some of that for them, but the fact of the matter is, it is necessary for them to be able to say it as well,” Verett said. “We as staff members here, when we go to Washington to lobby, we can be effective but there is nothing like having those actual producers in the rooms when we do that. That is what our organization is for. Every producer can’t pick up and fly or go to Washington or go to Austin, but that is why we need active producers in our organization as well. Our organization is only going to be as good as our leadership.”

Getting involved does not have to be an instant thing. Bessent said to start out small by getting involved in your local community and learn more as you go.

“Especially as a young producer and kind of seeing how this whole process unfolds and works – sort of dip your foot in the pond before jumping in head first,” Bessent said. “As you grow with that, becoming more involved with organizations like Plains Cotton Growers and the National Cotton Council and other regional organizations is helpful. Also, just be mindful of time. A big aspect of effective policy and advocating is having a large front and a large line of members to help advocate and tell their story. All it takes is just a little bit of time, whether it is being engaged with a member of Congress by calling their office or showing up at a town hall and telling your story there. Talking about issues here and giving just a small amount of your time not every day, but when it is needed, is a big factor that not just young producers but producers all across the board can do.”

Be the Voice

“One of the things we have to consider is that the general public wants more information about where their food and fiber comes from, and rightfully so,” said Mary Jane Buerkle, Director of Communications and Public Affairs at PCG. “It is up to us as the ag industry and up to the growers to be able to communicate that information and talk about what they do – get real with people.”

Simply put – Tell your story. Buerkle said a farmer telling his or her own story can be more effective than a similar message coming from an organization or business.

“People want to hear from those producers, boots on the ground, people who are actually in the field doing this work day-in and day-out,” Buerkle said. “It is so vital that our producers are willing to share what they do on a day-to- day basis because it is important to help people understand their challenges and what it is like to be a family farm operating under conditions that are beyond their control.”

Buerkle also said that sharing your story can be a family affair. Each member of a family can have a valuable perspective.

“I think that each one of us in a farming family has a role somewhere,” Buerkle said. “I would encourage farm wives and farm moms to get involved in some way. We are always looking for good leadership in organizations like the Cotton Board, the National Cotton Council, Cotton Incorporated, and I know there are some opportunities through PCCA to get involved. It is essential that farm wives and farm moms, that everybody in the farming family has an opportunity to tell their story and how different situations impact them because again that creates that connection to whoever is asking the question. It creates the connection between a farming family and somebody who might not understand the importance of a family farm or would just like to know more, so it is important that we are all ready and willing to tell our own part of the story.”