WASHINGTON—U.S. Senator John Boozman (R-AR), ranking member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, released the following opening remarks, as prepared, at the hearing entitled “Oversight of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).”
Good morning. I am pleased to join the chairwoman for today’s hearing and welcome Secretary Vilsack back to the committee.
I know everyone in this room has heard me say this before: based on the last census, 53 of the 75 counties in Arkansas have lost population. That is 71 percent of Arkansas counties. Across the United States, 53 percent of our counties, or 1660 out of 3140, lost population.
I am certain that all my colleagues on this committee are concerned about the hollowing-out of our states and our country and the impact that this will have on the future of America.
At the end of this farm bill process, I would like to go back to rural Arkansans and tell them that we have put policies and programs in place that will improve their quality of life and give their children and their neighbors’ children reasons to return home. In my mind, ensuring this country has a vibrant and economically sustainable agricultural economy is key to accomplishing that goal.
The headwinds for our producers are great. For only the third time in 55 years we’re expected to have a trade deficit in agriculture and no new trade deals have been signed or are under negotiation.
This will be the most expensive crop on record at $460 billion and follows last’s year previous record of more than $440 billion.
Farm debt is over half-a-trillion at $535 billion. Input costs are still high; supply chains are easing but remain tight; interest rates have rapidly increased and, by percentage, represent the largest cost increase our producers will face this year. Farm production costs have increased 28%, or nearly $90 billion.
Many do not understand the amount of capital required to farm these days. During fiscal year 2022 the average size of the Farm Service Agency’s guaranteed operating loans, often used for our young and beginning farmers and ranchers, was nearly $330,000.
The capital cost of getting into agriculture is enormous and farmers are going to have to rely more heavily on credit this year. How many other jobs require that you take out a loan the size of a mortgage, or larger, each year? And in order to pay that back, you must contend with the weather, the markets, the economy and global politics. These are many of the reasons why when I meet with my farmers, they all tell me that the “safety net” is badly frayed and needs to be reinforced.
The 2014 Farm Bill was successful in moving agriculture away from direct payments to need-based support during times of low prices or low revenue. That was nearly a decade ago and farm programs have not kept pace with the needs of modern agriculture and are not responsive in the face of pandemics or geopolitical pressures. The current safety net does not reflect the current levels of risk taken on each year by those that provide the food, fiber and fuel we all depend on.
As we address these risks, it is critical that we not get consumed by a small farm versus big farm conflict.
While 89 percent of the farms in the U.S. are classified as small by USDA and contribute nearly 18 percent of farm production, there are 3.2 percent of farms, classified as large, that contribute 46.5 percent of our nation’s farm production. All farms are valuable. This farm bill will not neglect the small nor punish the large.
We must also acknowledge that programs within this farm bill that relate to trade promotion, research, basic infrastructure in rural communities, bolstering the infrastructure to protect our flocks and herds, and so many other important programs must be considered. This farm bill covers much more than simply conservation, nutrition and green energy, which have received a $300 billion windfall since the last farm bill.
Before I close, I would like to mention one final issue: the importance of a productive, working relationship between Congress and the technical experts at USDA as we develop the farm bill.
Senator Stabenow and I are proud of the accomplishments we made in the last Congress and, in every instance where we’ve been successful, we’ve experienced constructive and timely technical feedback from USDA.
The Keep Kids Fed Act, providing support for summer meals for children, and the Growing Climate Solutions Act, which Senator Braun led, are examples of the great things we accomplished, with USDA providing invaluable technical assistance.
I’m growing increasingly concerned about USDA’s ability to provide timely responses, however. Just yesterday, I received a response to a letter I wrote to you in October, which was not entirely responsive. We really depend on USDA as we write this farm bill, because we need to understand how the policies we are considering would be implemented.
We very much enjoy working with you, but this lack of responsiveness has been disappointing. And it is not only for me, but members on our side of the aisle, and a lot of this is actually inquiries that are bipartisan. It is something that I’d like you to look at and see if we can resolve as it really is going to be a key factor as we head into the farm bill.
Thank you Madam Chair.