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Ranking Member Boozman Opening Statement at USDA Oversight Hearing

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, from the hearing to conduct oversight of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Good afternoon. Thank you, Chairwoman Stabenow for calling today’s hearing.

The lede from a February 15th story in Agri-Pulse, reporting on a presentation made by USDA’s Chief Economist at the Ag Outlook Forum, read: “USDA is forecasting lower prices for most major crops this year as input costs remain elevated and farmers face growing export competition”. A week earlier USDA forecasted that net farm income would decrease by 27.1 percent, or $43.1 billion, when adjusted for inflation over the last year. When you consider that since 2022 inflation-adjusted net farm income has dropped by $80 billon, this will be the largest two-year decline in net farm income of all time.

Secretary Vilsack, it’s been nearly one year since we last heard from you, and we welcome you back to the committee. As we continue our work to reauthorize the farm bill, we are interested in your perspective on the challenges in the farm economy.

As part of our efforts to write a new farm bill, I’ve been to 18 states across the country, and I’ve visited with hundreds of farmers. What I have heard from our nation’s farmers and ranchers is that they are very concerned.

Specifically, they are challenged by persistently high and historic inflation, both on and off the farm; stubbornly high interest rates; burdensome regulations; record large trade deficits in agriculture; and most importantly of all, rapidly declining commodity prices and farm incomes that will make these next few years some of the most challenging in their lives. Compared to last year, all sectors of agriculture and all areas of the country will see lower incomes in 2024.

Some have pointed to 20-year average farm income as evidence that the farm economy is healthy. And we should talk about 20-year averages because current interest expenses are nearly double that average. Likewise, input costs are 10% above the 20-year average. So, while we hear talk of net farm income being above or near the 20-year average, it is often not accompanied by those data points that reinforce the tight margins under which farmers operate.

I don’t know why, for some, a 20-year average income is acceptable for farmers, but it isn’t for other workers. When there were labor strikes recently, I don’t remember the administration calling for 20-year average wages for the workers, but for farmers this is supposed to be okay.

When I am talking to producers from across the country, they are sharing their concerns that they now must use their land and other assets as collateral to borrow hundreds of thousands of dollars to put a crop in the ground or care for livestock, while knowing they will earn less money. Many are wondering if it is worth it. Typically, the rate of return on farm assets is less than 2 percent. You can get two times that earning on any CD.

This is particularly true for small and mid-size farms, the very type of family operations that Secretary Vilsack has put significant emphasis on. I am concerned about their viability as well. When I grew up, we had more dairies in my home county than we currently have in the entire state of Arkansas. That loss of population impacts the local economy, our schools, and our hospitals and makes life in rural America less desirable. I have seen that as I have travelled through Arkansas’s 75 counties.

But if we truly care about our rural communities and our farm and ranch families, farming-- at all scales-- must be economically viable and we must provide a safety net that works. That is what I have called for in the next farm bill, and I believe that is the least we can do for our farmers.

The administration could be doing more to ease the worries in farm country. Its regulatory agenda has made crop protection tools less available and added more uncertainty for farmers. I am troubled by things like Emergency Relief Program Track 2 (ERP2), 30x30, the vocal advocacy to end stepped up basis and the lack of leadership when it comes to trade. All of these decisions tell me that our farmers’ concerns are not being heard in the executive branch.

I do believe in the next farm bill, a $1.5 trillion farm bill, we have an opportunity to make things right for farmers, rural communities and those in need. But that takes a commitment from all of us to work together toward these very worthy goals. No one, in the history of this committee, has said that passing a farm bill is an easy lift. But it is something that this committee, with the help of previous administrations, has come together to accomplish time and time again. I do not believe this farm bill should be any different. I hope today’s hearing will shed more light on how USDA can be a partner to accomplish these goals.