Although my Mississippi community has fared pretty well this summer, the worst drought since 1956 is jeopardizing more than half of U.S. cropland. Thousands of farmers are facing tough decisions, especially if they own livestock. Dairy farmers face a triple threat — feed costs are hitting record highs, heat stress is reducing milk production, and dairy cooperatives aren’t paying enough for wholesale milk, thanks in part to failed policy. Some farmers are seeking hay, grain, or silage to feed their cows; others are selling now to cut their losses.
A bushel of dried, shelled corn costs a record $8. Weighing 56 pounds, it could feed 8-10 cows per day if they’re also eating grass or hay. A livestock farmer with 100 cows could pay $80 a day for corn and $100 a day for hay. That’s nearly $200 per day for farmers with 100 cows— or $6,000 per month. And the price that dairy cooperatives and processors pay for milk doesn’t compensate for the extra costs.
It’s not only this drought that’s driving commodity traders to push prices skyward, however. An essential part of earlier farm programs, the Farmer-Owned Reserve, was scuttled as a result of international trade agreements the U.S. entered into after World War II. Despite the bumper grain crops of recent years, “free trade” pacts have left no reserves in the silos of farmers in America or many other countries. In 2012, higher prices for soy and corn led many farmers to shift acreage from conservation programs, livestock pastures, and other crops, but with no grain set aside for emergencies, there’s plenty of cause for speculation and concern.
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To help farmers receive fair prices for their products, maintain grain reserves, and support biodiversity, the National Family Farm Coalition proposed its Food from Family Farms Act for the 2008 Farm Bill. Instead, Congress passed the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act, including a commodity title relying largely on insurance premiums paid by farmers and supplemented by taxpayer dollars.
No one likes to hear “I told you so,” but had Congress heeded our advice, farmers and taxpayers would have been far better able to deal with a lack of grains, grass, and water from the drought. Economic analysis by Dr. Darryl Ray at the University of Tennessee documented that if a farmer-owned reserve had been in place between 1996 and 2010, taxpayers would have saved more than $96 billion in payments. Farmers would have fared better, too.
For farmers, programs and policies promoting maximum production lead to monocropping, which threatens a region’s biodiversity. One new pest or seasonal drought could destroy entire crops, family livelihoods, and local businesses. Monocropping also encourages the use of huge equipment that packs down the soil and eliminates on-farm jobs. It contributes to the widespread use of herbicides and pesticides, the loss of local food production, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and overproduction — which leads to lower prices and more monocropping, because farmers can survive only by selling more.
When Congress left Washington on August 3 for a five-week recess, its failure to act on disaster legislation and the 2012 farm bill jeopardized not only farmers and their families, but also the entire economy. The farm bill is a massive piece of legislation encompassing agriculture, food, nutrition, conservation, trade, and forestry programs reconsidered about every five years. The Senate passed its version in June, while the House Agriculture Committee passed theirs on July 11. Unfortunately, the House farm bill cuts over $16 billion from nutrition programs, guts the government’s review and approval process of biotech crops, and dismantles government oversight of poultry, hog, and meat industries.
It’s time for Congress to revisit a long-term policy fix. The Food from Family Farms Act mandates ecologically sustainable planting, fair prices, inventory management, and a disaster program not based on insurance premiums. Farmers would make a decent living, youth could find worthwhile employment at home, and rural communities would thrive. The Food from Family Farms Act offers real reform that would enable farmers and their communities to address disasters before they destroy them and the economy.