WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Chairwoman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, today spoke on the Senate floor on the importance of passing a bipartisan Farm Bill. Her remarks are included below:
I rise today to speak about rural communities like my hometown of Clare, Michigan. It was a great place to grow up. My Dad and Grandpa ran the local Oldsmobile dealership on main street, and my mom was Director of Nursing at the local hospital. My relatives were dairy farmers, and I saw how hard they worked every single day, rarely taking a day off. I had many jobs growing up but my first “real” job was at the local Dairy Phil where I learned the art of filling a cone with soft serve ice cream.
It wasn’t a big town, it still isn’t, but there was a real sense of community there. People shopped at local businesses, attended local events, cheered for the local high school sports teams, and rallied around local families when they needed help.
Places like Clare still exist, of course. In fact, in August I was there to help celebrate the Dairy Phil’s 70th anniversary. But small towns and rural communities have seen a lot of change over the years, and not all of it has been good.
When I graduated from high school in 1968, about 1 in 4 people lived in rural communities. Today only 1 in 7 people call rural America home. There are fewer people, and a lot fewer farms. In 1968, Michigan had about 89,000 farms. Today, we have fewer than 45,000. Among other things, trade wars started by the Trump Administration helped fuel this consolidation, causing dramatic drops in crop prices and billions in ad-hoc, inequitable federal trade assistance payments.
As people have left – and as our economy has changed – many small-town Main Streets have a lot of empty storefronts. Other towns have lost their schools. And more than 190 rural hospitals have closed since 2005. Our small towns and rural communities are under a lot of pressure. That’s something all of us need to care about.
These communities are important. They are a crucial part of the fabric of our nation, and I am so proud of the investments we’ve made over the past few years to strengthen that fabric. We invested in health care and rural hospitals during the pandemic. In the American Rescue Plan, we invested in telehealth, to help bring health care providers to people where they are, when they need health care. In fact, telehealth visits by people in rural areas skyrocketed from about 9,000 in 2019 to more than 830,000 in 2020.
And we invested in keeping critical rural hospitals open, like where my mom worked as a nurse. We also know that health care above the neck is just as important as health care below the neck. Farmers and ranchers have always been a stoic group – more likely to tough it out than to talk about it. That can make anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues worse. In fact, farming is one of the occupations with the highest risk for suicide.
We took a big step toward getting folks the help they need by investing in our bipartisan Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics (CCBHCs). There are now more than 500 of these clinics operating across the country, many in rural communities. It’s the largest-ever investment in behavioral health in our nation’s history!
Our rural areas have also been pummeled by a climate that’s changing before our eyes. Last year, our country saw 18 separate billion-dollar disasters, costing 474 Americans their lives and over $175 billion in damages. This year, we’ve already seen 24 billion-dollar disasters so far. But it doesn’t take a billion-dollar disaster to destroy a family farm.
Think about the cherry farmer who loses an entire crop when warm weather causes his trees to bloom early, only to be wiped out in a cold snap two weeks later. Or a wheat farmer, whose hard work is leveled when a violent summer storm pummels her fields with hail. Or a family that has to slaughter their entire population of turkeys when their farm is struck by an avian flu outbreak.
Farming has always been a tough way to make a living. With the climate crisis, it’s getting even tougher. That’s why it is so important that we have invested almost $20 billion in new funding for voluntary conservation programs to support our farmers and ranchers as they work to mitigate their risks from violent, unpredictable weather events and lead in our country’s efforts to tackle the climate crisis.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we also learned just how important access to high-speed internet is. All of a sudden, the lack of a good internet connection meant your kids couldn’t make it to class, and folks couldn’t see a doctor. It proved the point I’ve been making for years – high-speed internet IS infrastructure. In the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, we invested $65 billion to help ensure that all Americans – whether they live in a big city or 30 miles from the closest highway – have access to high-speed internet.
We also all remember how hard it was to get basic food staples when supply chains broke down during the pandemic. It was even harder in small towns and rural communities. That’s why we invested in strengthening food supply chains that build connections between local farmers, communities, and businesses. Small and regional processing operations also bring jobs back into the community instead of shipping them off to large, consolidated centers hundreds of miles away. Our food systems should be at the heart of our communities. This is about how we get local products from local farmers and producers onto local tables.
It’s also important to note that when we invest in rural America, we aren’t just investing in the families who live there, as important as that is. We’re also investing in all of us, because each and every one of us depends on our farmers and rural communities. Right now, we have the opportunity and responsibility to come together to build on the investments we’ve already made. The Farm Bill is our next opportunity to truly revitalize rural America.
I am committed to passing a strong, bipartisan Farm Bill as soon as possible. This is my sixth Farm Bill, and the third one I’ve led. Our committee is unique. We don’t sit at a raised dias facing witnesses. Instead, we sit around a table, much like American families do after a long day of work. We face each other. That is part of our bipartisan tradition, and to get a Farm Bill done, it needs to be bipartisan. It must hold together the broad coalition of support that has been the cornerstone of this process for decades.
Since Ranking Member Boozman and I started working on a bipartisan Farm Bill in April of 2022, the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee, and its Subcommittees, have held more than 20 hearings. There have also been countless Farm Bill listening sessions across the country, and I appreciate the community input and the bipartisan work of our Committee members.
The success of a Farm Bill is always based on finding bipartisan solutions to the problems we need to address and bipartisan ways to address funding priorities. In this Farm Bill, that means protecting critically needed conservation funding for farmers and keeping nutrition funding in the Nutrition Title for families.
Having said that, I am committed to finding new ways to bring additional resources into the Farm Bill to meet critical needs for our producers. We should all be grateful that Leader Schumer has committed to finding several billion dollars in additional resources through bipartisan offsets outside the Farm Bill. It’s almost unheard of to get a commitment to add new money to the Farm Bill– I remember not long ago when Senate leadership told us to cut $23 billion from the Farm Bill.
There’s a lot of people counting on us to get this done. More than 21 million Americans depend on the food and agriculture industry for their jobs. And another 4.6 million Americans work in the growing biobased manufacturing industry. But the Farm Bill isn’t just about jobs. It isn’t just about our economy. As I see it, the Farm Bill has three goals. It’s about keeping farmers farming, keeping families fed, and keeping rural communities strong.
The Farm Bill is the foundation of the farm safety net. During our oversight hearings this year, every group representing farmers told us that protecting and strengthening crop insurance was their #1 priority. And they asked for more options to make it more affordable. Crop insurance covers over 130 different crops and is continuing to expand to more crops and regions. Coming from Michigan, where we grow more than 300 crops, I am proud that I have become known as the “Specialty Crop Champion.”
During my time in the Senate, I have led the fight to expand crop insurance protections, especially for my state’s fruit and vegetable growers. And I’m continuing to work on ways to expand crop insurance for specialty crops. Time and again – from small producers in Michigan to national groups like the American Farm Bureau – we all hear from farmers across the country that we must protect and enhance crop insurance. I agree! It is their No. 1 risk management tool. It can be tailored and evolve to meet the individual needs of farmers.
And – most importantly – farmers will see the benefits of any changes we make to crop insurance immediately. Any changes we make to reference prices in the Commodity Title, for instance, will not have any impact until the fall of 2025 at the earliest. This is why I am currently exploring a proposal that would make crop insurance premiums more affordable on area-based crop insurance policies. No mandates, just new options to support our producers.
The Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) and Price Loss Coverage (PLC) programs are very important to many of our farmers as well, and we built a solid base in improving those programs in the 2018 Farm Bill. And there is good news here. In 2022, farmers recorded the highest farm income in history, and 2023 is projected to be the 7th highest in the last 21 years. But we know that farmers have also experienced challenges, and that not everyone has benefited from the recent high prices.
Input costs have been high, and though the costs of diesel fuel and fertilizer are declining, we need to ensure farmers have effective tools to address their costs and keep farming. Fortunately, USDA is using its authority to help farmers long-term by supporting the development of lower cost, American-made fertilizer and implementing innovative fertilizer technologies. This will create more American jobs, provide more choices for farmers, and make us less reliant on foreign supplies of fertilizer.
In many ways, the Farm Bill already helps farmers address higher input costs. The dairy safety net is structured around the difference between the cost of feed and the price of milk. Crop insurance can also expand and adjust to provide similar policies for a broader group of farmers. There is other good news. In the 2018 Farm Bill, we were able to improve PLC by including an “escalator” provision that is projected to increase reference prices for many commodities by 10-15% by the 2025 crop year under existing law – without any changes. I cannot claim credit for this provision. It was a bipartisan idea championed by the former House Republican Chairman, Mike Conaway of Texas. And I know it’s important to find other ways to improve ARC and PLC for the 22 crops that benefit from this program as well.
As we do so, I believe it’s important to find the best ways to help all farmers … both beginning farmers who are crucial for our future as well as medium and large established operations. But we cannot lose sight of the fact that the farm safety net extends far beyond Titles I and XI. The “farm” does not need to be “put back into” the Farm Bill. It’s on every page. The farm safety net is support for research. It’s access to affordable credit and loans.
It’s specialty crop block grants and dairy and sugar programs. It’s disaster assistance and trade. It’s protecting the health of our livestock. And it’s voluntary conservation programs.
I strongly believe, and I know I have colleagues on both sides of the aisle who agree, that conservation programs are a vital part of risk management for farmers today. As I said earlier, you don’t need to explain to a farmer what climate change is – they see it in their orchards and pastures and fields every day. Farmers want to make their operations more resilient in the face of the climate crisis. They want to build healthier soil by keeping carbon in the ground. That’s why we are seeing record demand for popular voluntary conservation programs – and the good news is we now have more funding to meet their needs.
The farm safety net is also about building markets, and we have received some great news on that front. This week, Secretary Vilsack announced a $2.3 billion investment from the Commodity Credit Corporation to invest in trade promotion and in-kind international food assistance. This will support American farmers and help people in need around the world. I very much appreciate Secretary Vilsack responding to the request from Senator Boozman and I to do this. Secretary Vilsack’s continued commitment to meet the needs of our agricultural community – as well as his partnership with us to get a bipartisan bill done – is so important.
This new CCC funding doubles the amount available for trade promotion for the next five years. It also creates an opportunity to spread the money out more evenly over ten years. This would allow us to grow permanent baseline funding for trade promotion programs in the 2023 Farm Bill and every subsequent Farm Bill, something that has not happened since 2006.
Our farmers are looking to sell their products across the ocean. But they’re also looking to sell their products across the country, across the state, and across the street. When our growers can get their apples on lunch trays at the local elementary school … or sell tomatoes to their neighbors at the Saturday morning farmers market … that puts more money in their pockets and keeps it in the local community. Farm Bill trade promotion programs, international food aid, bioeconomy programs, local foods programs – all of these increase market opportunities for our nation’s farmers to be successful.
And we want all farmers to be successful – not just those who are already doing well, but new farmers too. That’s why I am laser-focused on ensuring that the Farm Bill includes targeted support for beginning and organic farmers, BIPOC farmers and urban growers.
While the Farm Bill is the backbone of the farm safety net, its nutrition programs are the backbone of the family safety net. I believe that no American parent should have to worry about whether or not they will be able to feed their children. And no American senior should have to go hungry because their food budget simply won’t stretch far enough. It would be unconscionable to further cut the modest assistance of $6.00 a day that helps millions of Americans put food on the table and make ends meet.
I also reject the premise that we must choose between supporting farmers and families. The needs of farmers and families are interconnected. Farmers benefit when families can afford to buy the food they produce, and the economy benefits as well. In fact, every SNAP dollar spent generates $1.50 in economic activity. Just like the farm safety net, these nutrition programs expand during times of need, and contract during times of plenty. We’ve already seen participation in SNAP decline as the country continues to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic – just like the program is designed to do.
Nutrition assistance is also so much more than SNAP. It’s Double-Up Bucks, so families can buy more nutritious fruits and vegetables. It’s the wonderful work of our local food banks. It’s getting fresh, local foods to children in schools. It’s ensuring that those same children aren’t going hungry during the summer and when school isn’t in session. I am extremely proud that in December, Senator Boozman and I led the successful effort to establish the first permanent investment in child nutrition in over a decade, which will provide summer meals for 29 million children. And it’s providing support for farmers markets, which strengthen connections between growers and the communities they feed.
A strong farm safety net, and a strong family safety net, help build strong small towns. Every American – no matter where they live – deserves a great quality of life and the chance to be successful. The truth is, we need strong small towns. We need thriving rural communities. We need young folks to go off to college and want to come home, work on the family farm, start a small business, and raise their family in the community where they grew up. We need small towns to have strong schools, quality health care, high-speed internet, and vibrant Main Streets. We need the Dairy Phil in Clare to teach young people the art of creating the perfect soft serve ice cream cone – and so many other life lessons – for another 70 years.
Getting the Farm Bill done won’t be easy. It never is. But I am committed to doing so. Unfortunately, it looks like this will take longer than I would like. But, it would be irresponsible to allow vital programs in the farm safety net to lapse and revert to Depression Era policy in January. We cannot allow that to happen, and given the chaos in the House, I know we will need an extension. But let’s be clear, it would be equally irresponsible to take our focus off of a multi-year Farm Bill that provides stability and certainty for our farmers. I am laser-focused on delivering a bipartisan Farm Bill that keeps farmers farming, families fed, and rural communities strong in the coming months.
It is critical that we give rural America and agriculture the certainty of a 5-year Farm Bill. The unifying principle behind the Farm Bill is that it is a safety net for farmers and families. When crops fail or when disaster strikes, the farm safety net steps in to provide stability and security. When a pandemic hits, or the economy takes a turn for the worse, it is the family safety net that steps in. The Farm Bill is designed to – and it must – support both.
Senator Boozman and I have a strong relationship, and we have already accomplished so much together. I know that we can come together with colleagues on both sides of the aisle and agree on a bipartisan Farm Bill that addresses the important needs of agriculture and rural America. Together, and with the bedrock support of the broad Farm Bill coalition – everyone from farmers to climate and nutrition advocates – we can get this done. Communities, farmers, and families are counting on us.