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Woody Barth, Published June 22 2013

Letter: Separating chaff from seed in farm bill debate

As the U.S. House tries to revive a farm bill, legislators will question whether we need a farm bill. They’ll point to a booming agricultural economy as proof that farmers can “go it alone.”

Agriculture’s prosperity is undeniable. A combination of sustained high crop prices and risk protection tools has increased farm income more than any other time I can recall, or even in my father’s lifetime. While farmers can’t control market prices, we have been able to better manage risk than in the past, thanks to a strong crop insurance program for crop failures. In fact, despite last year’s drought – the most severe and extensive in 25 years – the federal government did not have to funnel disaster relief to the countryside. Instead, a responsible crop insurance program, where risk is shared by the farmer and society, kicked in.

In the success story of the American economy, it makes little sense to dig into programs that work. Chaff in the farm bill must be separated from seeds of necessity.

CHAFF: Direct payments to farmers who are decoupled from production have long been opposed by the North Dakota Farmers Union. These payments, a remnant of the 1996 farm bill, were meant to firm up operations before all farm programs were to be eliminated. That didn’t occur – nor should it have – but payments continued, some

$5 billion annually.


re-establishment of conservation compliance for farmers to be eligible for programs, including subsidized crop insurance, is unrealistic in the Prairie Pothole Region. We have an overabundance of water and wetland delineation issues that hamper farming and the ability to manage water. A balanced approach needs to be adopted with proper adjustments.

SEED: The crop insurance program must be kept strong to eliminate the need for unbudgeted ad hoc disaster assistance. In drought-laden 2012, indemnities paid to farmers totaled almost

$17 billion. But taxpayers didn’t bear the full brunt of the loss. Farmers shouldered

$12.7 billion in deductible losses on their crop insurance policies and paid $4.1 billion in crop insurance premiums. And between 2001-10, the government actually realized nearly $4 billion in underwriting gains when premiums exceeded losses.

SEED: Meaningful limits on farm program payments and crop insurance premium subsidies need to be implemented. Limits should be targeted to production levels of family farms with special consideration given to beginning farmers.

SEED: Investments need to be made in the energy title, research title, and rural development title of the farm bill. It is our promise to future generations that fuel and food will be grown, year after year, with the infrastructure in place to do so.

The farm bill should foster a fair and competitive environment for farmers and ranchers to succeed, improve the quality of rural life, and provide a safe and reliable supply of food.

Barth is North Dakota Farmers Union president. He raises cattle and corn

on his farm near Mandan, N.D.