Two little words are once again starting to dominate the conversations in coffee shops and supper tables around the countryside: "Farm Bill."
The current legislation, enacted in 2014, expires in 2018. Policymakers of all stripes are already staking out their positions for the battles ahead. While much of the discussion is held in coffee shops, and sale barns across rural America, this comprehensive legislation affects everyone connected to food. In other words, all of us.
The organic and alternative ag sectors scored a major victory in 2014 with expanded insurance coverage for organic growers, incentives to expand organic crop acreage and assistance to producers making the transition from conventional production.
In case you missed it, the political landscape in Washington, D.C. has shifted somewhat since 2014. The fight to support alternative ag in the next Farm Bill may be much more difficult.
Pat Roberts (R-KS), chair of the Senate Ag Committee, kicked off the Farm Bill debate in February with a hearing in Kansas City. The ranking minority member U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) is following suit with a hearing in her home state as well. Members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees are conducting listening sessions throughout their districts.
With the prices of conventional commodities plummeting, the mainstream farm organizations are lining up in droves to argue for more support for their growers. Even as the USDA faces significant budget cuts, those arguments may resonate.
Perhaps, though, the current dilemma being experienced in traditional agriculture provides a strong argument for keeping a focus on alternative agriculture in the Farm Bill. While cattle prices today are falling below the cost of production, bison ranchers are scrambling to keep up with growing consumer demand. Even though the prices for organic corn and soybeans have slipped, prices for those organic crops are roughly double the price of their conventional counterparts. Still, organic food companies are relying on imports to meet their needs.
If American farmers and ranchers are going to be able to supply organic and natural food companies—and their customers—with the ingredients those companies need, production must increase on American farms and ranches.
With the average age of the American farmer today hitting 60, the need for a new generation of producers is apparent. Programs to increase the access that those aspiring producers have to financing, land and infrastructure can help reshape the complexion of American agriculture, the complexion of our retail food system and the financial stability of rural communities.
Whether the lawmakers on Capitol Hill are receptive to that message remains to be seen. Even more uncertain is the Trump administration's willingness to support unconventional agriculture.