WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow, Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, & Forestry, today released the following opening statement – as prepared for delivery – at the hearing entitled “Examining the Farm Economy: Perspectives on Rural America.”
Stabenow’s statement, as prepared for delivery, follows:
Mr. Chairman, thank you for convening this important hearing about the state of the farm and rural economy. I’d also like to thank our expert panel who will help us understand the lay of the land as we get to work on the 2018 Farm Bill.
We’ve already started the process by holding field hearings in Kansas and Michigan to hear directly from those who have a real stake in the process. While Kansas and Michigan farmers grow different crops, many of them face similar challenges. I always say that farming is the riskiest business there is. A pre-harvest hailstorm on the Ridge or a late spring snowstorm, as your wheat growers in Kansas know all too well, can destroy an entire year’s paycheck if you’re a farmer.
Similarly, the economic downturn in the farm country presents challenges for our producers all across the country. We know that farm prices for many crops are down nearly 50 percent from their highs just a few years ago. Challenging market conditions have pinched margins and many producers are struggling to make ends meet.
The U.S. has a diverse agricultural economy, and these recent challenges extend to farmers in all corners of the country and on farms of all sizes. We know that many farmers are facing hard times due to low prices. This is especially challenging for our dairy farmers, who lack an adequate safety net.
Specialty crop producers are struggling to find a stable workforce. New and beginning farmers are experiencing unique challenges in gaining access to credit in the current economic climate. All aspects of agriculture, including organics and local food systems, need tools to survive these challenging conditions.
We’re also hearing that many of our small towns and rural communities are still facing tough economic times. Recognizing this slow economic recovery, the Agriculture Department has made historic, targeted investments in rural communities to spur jobs and opportunity over the last several years. As a result, we’re beginning to see small towns across our country on the road to recovery.
But there is much more to do for these communities – which is why it’s deeply troubling that this administration has proposed sharp budget cuts that would roll back a lot of the progress we’ve seen. Earlier this week, the Trump administration released their budget proposal, which would have devastating effects on our farmers and rural families. This proposal cuts $231 billion from Farm Bill programs which would make a 5-year farm bill virtually impossible to pass.
It cuts crop insurance by $29 billion, which would take away a crucial part of the farm safety net at a time when it’s needed most. The budget also calls for sharp cuts to the family safety net, gutting SNAP by nearly 30%. Proposed closings of USDA offices would reduce customer service for our agricultural producers, and make their tough jobs even harder. Elimination of specialty crop and market access programs weaken our farmers’ ability to recover from price slumps or pest and disease issues.
The budget also ignores the needs of small towns and rural communities. USDA rural development programs support the health of our small towns by supporting home ownership, strengthening water and sewer and road infrastructure, and providing access to critical health and safety services. Cutting these critical services would have a devastating impact on rural quality of life and eliminate much needed jobs.
This devastating budget proposal comes on the heels of a USDA reorganization announcement that would eliminate the Under Secretary of Rural Development, a key voice for our small towns in the administration.
While I was pleased that the reorganization included plans to add an Under Secretary for Trade, as required by the 2014 Farm Bill, we have now learned it was unnecessary to remove Rural Development from the subcabinet. Agricultural exports and rural development are both critical missions that deserve and require high-level, accountable, and focused leadership.
The combination of devastating budget cuts to critical services and the planned elimination of the Under Secretary for Rural Development sends a powerful message that this White House is not concerned with the needs of America’s small towns and rural communities.
Our farmers and rural communities have done their part to reduce the deficit. In the 2014 Farm Bill, we made responsible bipartisan reforms to cut $23 billion. The farm economy was in a much better place, and the Bill is still estimated to save $80 billion more than expected.
But a lot has changed since then, and looking ahead to the next Farm Bill, we need to put our farms and small towns on the road to recovery. More than 500 groups representing farmers, conservationists, rural communities, and food advocates wrote a letter that we should not make any further cuts. And I agree.
I look forward to hearing from today’s witnesses and continuing this committee’s bipartisan process to reauthorize a comprehensive 5-year Farm Bill. Thank you.