The U.S. Congress went into summer recess without enacting a farm bill. There is still time for it to make changes in the farm bill, to do a better job protecting the resources needed to produce food, fiber and biofuel. The most important resource is the people engaged in agriculture.
Our senators and representatives return to Washington, D.C., after Labor Day and have until the end of September to agree on a revised farm bill, by compromising on their different versions or to extend the 2008 edition. They can insert important provisions to care for producers and consumers.
Let’s begin this analysis of what the farm bill should do by looking at current mission statements of key stakeholders.
USDA mission: We provide leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, rural development, nutrition and related issues based on sound public policy, the best available science and efficient management.
This mission describes functional roles of the USDA but it does not explicitly mention people.
The two missions below are those of key producer organizations – I wish I had the space to include more. Although both differ in some of the ways they would accomplish their missions, both advocate for the well-being of agricultural producers and their communities.
American Farm Bureau Federation mission: AFBF is the unified national voice of agriculture, working through our grassroots organizations to enhance and strengthen the lives of rural Americans and to build strong, prosperous agricultural communities.
National Farmers Union mission: To advocate for the economic and social well-being, and quality of life of family farmers, fishermen and consumers and their communities through education,
cooperation and legislation. NFU advocates for sustainable production of food, fiber, feed and fuel.
These missions are about caring for people. Agriculture is a noble endeavor, because it is a calling to produce essentials people need in order to live. In their battles for control over the workings of the farm bill, many of our legislators seem to have forgotten the mission of caring for people.
The people involved in agriculture are the producers and the consumers. The 2008 farm bill mandates the following expenditures, according to the Congressional Budget Office: food stamps (now known as SNAP, or Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program), 51.9 percent; child nutrition, 21.4 percent; commodity programs, 10 percent; conservation, 7 percent; crop insurance, 6.2 percent; and Other (rural development funds and a host of other USDA programs), 3.4 percent.
The proposed 2012 farm bill makes sure producers have adequate income. Both the Senate and House versions of the proposed bill shift money from commodity price supports into crop insurance programs. Though the House and Senate versions differ somewhat in their protections for soil, water and air, both proposals expand protections for more crops and encourage locally produced foods.
Both current versions of the new farm bill cut funds for SNAP, by differing amounts. This provision hurts people needing food assistance and it hurts agricultural producers because it reduces guaranteed markets for food.
The number of people using SNAP and child nutrition assistance has grown by 13 percent each year since 2008, even though eligibility requirements have not changed. The number of consumers who need SNAP has increased because of the recession – when unemployment burgeoned, inflation remained in check and income for this segment of the population declined or held steady.
The current farm bill does not address stress experienced by farmers. It is well known that farming is among the most stressful occupations and has one of the highest rates of work-related injuries and fatalities.
The behavioral health of agricultural producers is not addressed in the current farm bill even though behavioral health supports were authorized, though not funded, in the 2008 bill. The agricultural population has a reputation for avoiding behavioral health issues, such as depression, anxiety disorders and suicide.
The fatality rate of farmers who take their own lives is higher than the fatality rate of those injured physically. The suicide rate of male farmers is 60 percent higher than the suicide rate of men in general, and more than four times higher than the suicide rate of women.
The average economic toll of a farmer suicide is approaching $2 million. The loss to the family and community is even greater, in a psychological and social sense.
Behavioral health supports that are needed include 24/7 hotlines and websites, and counseling from providers trained in agricultural behavioral health whose services are paid like an employee assistance plan. Farm people used these services at a rate of 22,000 contacts annually in a seven-state Midwest region (Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin), when grant funds were available during the preceding decade.
The cost was miniscule, about $1.2 million yearly, for the seven state programs. To offer similar services throughout all agricultural regions of the United States would cost about $10 million annually. That’s a small investment to reap huge benefits. Contact your senators and representatives to tell them what you think.
Michael R. Rosmann, Ph.D. owns a row crop farm in Iowa and is a founding partner of the nonprofit network AgriWellness, Inc. Send thoughts and questions to him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org