As we find ourselves once again on the threshold of a new Farm Bill, the reality of declining public funds in support of agriculture is finally sinking in. There is no talk this time around expanding spending, no surplus to divvy up as in 2002, or a compliant Ways and Means Committee like 2008. No, this time we must do with less.
But how has agriculture prepared itself? By taking a critical look at and prioritizing our real needs? By making the case for public support for an industry that must double production worldwide in less than 50 years? By settling our own differences away from public forums? Hardly!
Now, more than ever, we must get our act together to justify billions of dollars of public support for a critical industry. If we fail, too many needs will once again be unmet while new versions of old programs dominate the tug of war over a shrinking fiscal pie.
First, we need to recognize that we are asking United States taxpayers to support private business in pursuit of a worthy goal—improving the diets of all citizens here and around the globe while maintaining a healthy, stable production and distribution system.
Second, we need to identify the issues that truly justify public funding, separating them from needs that are better left to the market forces of our form of capitalism. This is where it gets difficult because we are an industry that has too often relied on government aid in the name of helping manage the risk.
For example, generally risk management should be left to the individual, yet for more than a generation the federal government has increasingly taken on that role in the form of market loans, counter cyclical payments, direct payments and subsidized crop insurance. That is not to say we don’t need a viable insurance program, even one subsidized by public funds—but only for the kind of systemic risks for which insurance companies are reluctant to issue policies. Individual risk should be left to the individual.
Another example of justifiable public expense is research. We are the most productive farmers history has ever known for a number of reasons, one of which is the investment made by our public universities (and private entities with their support) in basic and applied research. Yet, when push comes to shove, our farm organizations are not making public funding for research a priority.
Finally, as our society increases its demands and expectations on private landowners for environmental stewardship, we should be making a much stronger case that at least some of the cost of environmental improvement should be borne by taxpayers since all communities benefit from these efforts, not just the individual farmer. Yet protecting our best farmland, funding programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and generally offering assistance to achieve environmental goals so widely supported by the public continues to suffer from funding cuts and modest farm support.
As the Farm Bill discussion enters the next critical stage, are we having the kind of dialogue needed to develop a 21st Century farm policy? Do we have our priorities right? Or, will we once again miss the opportunity to reconnect to our tax-paying public by linking their support to our capacity to deliver the public goods they increasingly expect from us?