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Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, Published May 14 2013

Letter: We need a new farm bill

I am working with other members of the Senate Agriculture Committee to draft a five-year farm bill. This marks the next act in a play that began too long ago. Unfortunately, the previous Congress was unable to pass a long-term bill, and rural North Dakotans were forced to settle with a one-year extension. As a result, North Dakotans have been waiting for almost two years for a farm bill to give them the certainty they need to run their businesses. If we are to ensure rural North Dakota remains a place where families choose to live and businesses are able to grow, it is critical we pass a five-year farm bill.

Agriculture is the No. 1 industry in North Dakota, providing the greatest economic impact and supplying the strongest employment. The cornerstone of the agriculture sector is the family farmer, and my priority as your senator is to ensure policies are crafted in ways that enable farmers to stay in business in the face of incredible risks. North Dakota growers must spend upward of a million dollars to simply put a crop in the ground in the hopes of earning a modest profit at the end of the year. What’s more, each year North Dakota growers face challenges completely out of their control such as flood, drought, price collapse and the introduction of new pests and pathogens. These risks are especially threatening to new and beginning farmers who have yet to build up the equity and capital reserves needed to finance a crop the year after a disaster.

With economic globalization and the increased sophistication of agricultural markets, American growers are now exposed to market volatility like never before. Because of greater connectivity in the marketplace, events that occur in far-flung places can impact the price of commodities at the local grain elevator. This hurts growers by affecting the prices that they hope to return when they make planting decisions. Over the course of a crop year, volatility can contribute to price drops that turn a profitable crop into a major loss. This underscores the need to have some form of price protection to help farmers withstand price shocks that spread through global markets.

Growers in North Dakota have been blessed with strong prices in recent years, but many of us remember the difficult price conditions that occurred in the 1980s and early 1990s. Farm programs must be designed keeping the bad times in mind.

The farm bill I am working to draft will provide growers with the support they need to survive the tough years and thrive in the good ones. Specifically, the Senate draft of the farm bill authorizes a new commodity program called Agricultural Risk Coverage. This program will kick in when farmers lose money to provide modest payments to help cover some of the losses they experience. It utilizes a market-oriented approach to adjust support when prices are high to keep pace with increased costs in inputs. It will also track with the market and pay growers on historical production to prevent the policy from influencing planting decisions. ARC will work in concert with the Federal Crop Insurance Program to allow growers to mitigate the variety of risks they face each year.

As the risks pile up for American growers, it is critical our nation strengthens its commitment to a strong domestic agricultural economy. American farmers are some of the most efficient and productive farmers in the world, which is why the American agricultural system is the envy of the world. But in order for that to remain the case, we need to continue to make modest investments to the farm safety net to support farmers in North Dakota and throughout the country.

As I said many times throughout the past year, my first priority as a United States senator is to provide the farmers and ranchers in my state a five-year farm bill. I look forward to working with my colleagues on the Agriculture Committee and in the Senate as a whole to push this needed legislation to the finish line. Rural Americans deserve nothing less.

Heitkamp, D-N.D., is in her first term in the U.S. Senate.