WASHINGTON — U.S. senators on the Budget Committee dug into the impacts of climate change on farming during a Wednesday hearing, raising concerns about what the next few decades hold for food production and the way of life.
But Republicans and representatives of farm groups pushed back against increased government regulation. Brent Johnson, president of the Iowa Farm Bureau and a fifth-generation farmer, said farmers tend to respond better to incentives for new programs, rather than penalties.
“Progress is always made better with carrots instead of sticks,” Johnson said. “Voluntary, incentive-based programs have made a lot of positive progress in agriculture in the entire history of the industry.”
Chair Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, said the country’s agriculture landscape is being upended by a series of droughts, floods, wildfires and hurricanes that have harmed farmers and contributed to rising grocery bills for consumers.
“Unpredictable weather has always been a challenge to raising crops and livestock, but farmers are seeing more frequent and extreme weather variability than ever before,” Whitehouse said. “Events that used to be considered anomalies now occur with increasing regularity.”
Whitehouse noted that federal programs “that protect growers and stabilize the agricultural economy move the costs of damaging weather to the federal government.”
During fiscal 2022, Whitehouse said, the U.S. government paid out $15 billion for crop insurance, including over $11.6 billion in premium subsidies.
During three years of an emergency relief program, he said, the federal government disbursed more than $7.4 billion to assist agriculture producers in addition to the wildfire and hurricane indemnity program.
“As climate change makes farming and raising livestock more unpredictable, that cost will continue to grow,” Whitehouse said.
Farming and the environment
Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, the ranking member on the panel, noted that “farmers’ relationship with the environment is often difficult for folks” who haven’t experienced the challenges of farming to understand.
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“Family farms want to make sure that they leave the land better for the next generation than when it was entrusted to their care,” Grassley said.
A lifelong farmer himself, Grassley said, “the first step to running a sustainable farm is for the farm at least to be able to pay the bills. Only then can a farmer implement practices that reduce emissions and improve soil health.”
Martin Larsen, a fifth-generation farmer near Byron, Minnesota, told the committee that crop diversification is one of the ways he and other farmers in his region are trying to lessen the impacts of severe weather.
Larsen said that because different crops are harvested at different times of the year, that can prevent a farmer from losing an entire harvest.
His oat crop, for example, will be harvested soon in Minnesota, while corn would likely come up in July and soybeans in August.
“Oats frankly don’t care about a dry August because they’re in the grain bin, and they’re getting processed into food. So that’s one way to manage risk from a farmer’s perspective,” he said
From a policy perspective, Larsen said, Congress and others could work to ease the transition process for farmers, who would likely be planting crops that don’t have proven yields in their region of the country.
“If we were to step outside of those proven yields into a crop we haven’t grown before, such as oats or something else, we don’t have that protection of a good (actual production history),” Larsen said. “So we need some kind of bridge program to get us into growing something different.”
Fires, drought significantly affect farmers, ranchers
New Mexico Democratic Sen. Ben Ray Luján noted during the hearing that drought and wildfires in his home state have significantly affected farmers and ranchers, especially when smaller amounts of rainfall can now turn into a significant flood.
“Right now we’re seeing farmers, producers all over New Mexico that are impacted by what I just described being devastated when we’re blessed with rain,” Luján said. “And it’s just it’s terrifying to see.”
Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat, said that just before the pandemic began, local officials in the southeast area of his state asked for help monitoring wells — a request that came as a bit of a surprise in a region he described as “allergic to any form of government involvement.”
“I nearly fell out of my seat because this is a place where it would be the last thing anyone would ask for,” Merkley said. “They said, ‘Listen, we’ve always been against any form of government oversight, but we lost 3 feet of our groundwater last year on top of many, many dozens of feet of losses over previous years. And we’re all going to be out of business soon if we don’t monitor our groundwater use.’”
Ongoing drought from reduced rainfall and reduced snowpack, Merkley said, has been persistent, causing issues for farmers and others.
Crop insurance and other federal safety net programs that provide cash assistance to farmers who lose crops to natural disasters will have to change with the climate, according to Brandon Willis, an assistant professor in the Department of Applied Economics at Utah State University.
The goal for crop insurance, he said, is to avoid having major natural disasters that aren’t covered by the federal program. That would leave farmers without any help.
“Their job is going to become more challenging in the future,” Willis said of the people who regulate and administer crop insurance. “They’re going to have to be ahead of the curve, have new programs that address new situations.”
Johnson of the Iowa Farm Bureau said the focus should not be on more government rules.
“It’s natural to a farmer to want to make progress, to want to do better, to want to be more efficient,” Johnson added. “And if you remove that incentive through burdensome regulations my focus changes to meeting a regulation, instead of meeting innovation, instead of finding new opportunities that maybe nobody has even thought of yet.”