Local View: House farm bill fails rural Nebraska

Published first in the Lincoln Journal-Star, May 9, 2018

The House Agriculture Committee has proposed and voted for a new version of the farm bill. Unfortunately, their proposed bill fails rural Nebraskans.

Working together with members of our congressional delegation, rural Nebraskans have made major improvements to farm policy in the last two farm bills. Farm policy today is more fair, better protects our land and water and does more to create opportunity for a new generation than it did 10 years ago. The House farm bill threatens to turn the clock back a decade.

The bill makes three major changes that roll back wins Nebraskans have worked together to achieve.

The Conservation Stewardship Program, won in 2009, protects more than 70 million acres nationwide. It is a sensible program that is working for Nebraskans. In 2017, Nebraska ranked second in the country for new acres enrolled, and first in the country for acres re-enrolled.

The program offers farmers and ranchers the opportunity to earn payments for actively managing and maintaining conservation on their farm. The program supports practices such as grass waterways, pollinator strips, rotational grazing, and cover crops. The House farm bill eliminates the Conservation Stewardship Program.

The 2014 farm bill made historic changes to tighten loopholes that previously allowed the largest farmers to collect unlimited farm program commodity subsidies. Our own Rep. Jeff Fortenberry championed a 2013 bill in the House to close such loopholes. The House farm bill rolls back these reforms, reopening and creating new loopholes that will allow the largest farms to collect government payments without limit.

Unlimited farm payments for corporate-owned farms are the opposite of what rural Nebraska needs. Not only are such payments fiscally irresponsible, they are unfair to Nebraska’s hard-working, family-scale farmers. As Congress moves forward with the farm bill, we call on Rep. Fortenberry to again stand as a champion against this harmful proposal.

Finally, innovative programs such as the Value-Added Producer Grant Program, the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program and the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program won in the last two years have added support for rural small businesses and local and regional market development.

Supported by members of our delegations in Washington, these programs are creating opportunity for a new generation in rural Nebraska. The House farm bill effectively eliminates these critical programs by defunding them.

We are proud to have worked with rural Nebraskans and our delegation in D.C. to win, protect, and build on many of these gains in the 2014 and 2008 farm bills. Farm policy today is more fair, creates more opportunity, and is better at supporting stewardship of our land and water for future generations because of our collective work.

The changes we have won are especially critical to Nebraska's farm and rural economies with today’s low commodity prices.

Conservation programs support land stewardship, which fortifies revenue for current and future generations. Limiting farm payments makes government subsidies more fair, curbing pressure on beginning and family size operators. Finally, programs that spark new market development bring renewed opportunity to small towns.

Rolling back these wins in the face of the current farm economy will only worsen the economic picture for farm communities. We must not allow the House to turn the clock back 10 years. We call on our delegation in Washington to reject the current version of the bill.

We can do better. We must do better. Rural Nebraskans, our land, our water, and future generations are counting on it.

Brian Depew is executive director of the Lyons-based Center for Rural Affairs.