LANSING, MICH. - A safety net for America's farmers is vital if they are to meet increasing demands for food, fuel and fiber, witnesses said during the first official farm bill field hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, held May 31 at Michigan State University's (MSU) campus in East Lansing.

Focused on gathering input for crafting a 2012 farm bill, the field hearing, held in the home state of committee chairwoman Sen. Debbie Stabenow, drew more than 250 people and featured testimony by 15 diverse witnesses who represented a broad spectrum of farm bill interests. The current farm bill, adopted in 2008, expires on Sept. 30, 2012.

Field crops
Among those who testified was Clark Gerstacker, of Midland, who farms 1,500 acres of corn, soybeans and dry edible beans on his family's four-generation centennial farm. Gerstacker said the farm has utilized a variety of farm bill programs over the years, including crop insurance, disaster assistance, commodity price supports and conservation programs.

Gerstacker said many of these programs can be improved and made more efficient in light of federal budget constraints, but he stressed that having access to risk management and crop insurance programs "are vital and cannot be lost in the new farm bill."

"While farmers like me are eager to provide the safe, abundant and inexpensive food supply, we face increasing tumultuous markets that rise and fall with the wind," Gerstacker told Stabenow and Sen. Pat Roberts, of Kansas, the Ranking Republican Member on the Agriculture Committee.

"At the same time that we encounter ever-changing market opportunities, farmers also face higher input costs, such as seed, fertilizer and fuel - all of which are necessary components of a year's harvest," said Gerstacker. "In addition to market volatility, farmers are also faced with the constant uncertainty of weather. We wait for the thaw, the sun, the rain, the heat - all of which are conditions completely out of our control. Each of these can present a make-it-or-break-it factor for our crop.

These factors force farmers to take on a considerable amount of risk annually, said Gerstacker. "The fact is we are faced with the task of providing feed and fuel for a growing world population. We cannot simply sit out a planting season until farming becomes more profitable," he said.

"This is why the upcoming farm bill is so important," Gerstacker said. "It's not about providing income to less than 2 percent of the American population that farms. It's about ensuring that the same 2 percent can continue to provide affordable food to the other 98 percent of Americans who rely on them."

Additional testimony and MFB input
During the three hours of testimony, the Senators also heard from MSU officials about the importance of research. Other testimony included the importance of federal supports when farmers seek alternative energy sources such as wind and solar power, an overhaul of U.S. dairy policy, the plight of low-income families as they seek healthy food options, lending conditions, and forestry and organic production.

For its part, the Michigan Farm Bureau (MFB) submitted written testimony which reinforced many of the messages voiced by the witnesses.

"Farmers in Michigan support extending the concepts of the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008," wrote MFB. "The 2008 Farm Bill is not perfect but it provides a great baseline to begin crafting the next safety net. The ultimate goal is for the 2012 Farm Bill to help Michigan farmers continue to grow the most abundant, most affordable, and safest food supply in the world.

"This can be done by providing a strong and effective safety net that does not necessarily guarantee a profit. Farmers understand the budget pressures facing federal programs and we encourage action on bringing our national budget into balance and addressing the federal deficit. Farmers are prepared to do their role in making sure both financial goals are achieved but we also strongly believe that the sacrifice must be shared," meaning farmers should not face disproportionate cuts in the 2012 farm bill.

Moving forward
In comments at a news conference after the hearing, Stabenow and Roberts made remarks indicating they agree with Farm Bureau's position on farm bill spending.

"We don't want anything disproportionate. We'll take our fair share and farmers and ranchers want to do that," said Roberts.

He added: "Agriculture has a big bull's-eye on its back in regards to a (budget) target and reduced spending... I think it's a paradox and an enormous irony. Here we're in a position where we are going to have to feed over 9 billion people, or 6 billion, in the next couple of decades and why on earth would we do anything from a regulatory standpoint, or a tax standpoint, or a spending cuts standpoint to harm the person whose job it is to produce the food and fiber for this country and a very troubled and hungry world.

"That's the message we both (Roberts and Stabenow) have been trying to give to our fellow colleagues, and the leadership, and the president of the United States and administration."

Both Senators complimented the witnesses on their knowledge and expertise and said the field hearing was of tremendous value.

"You can't write a farm bill without sitting on the wagon side and listening to producers, regardless of who it is or whatever they're growing, and in Michigan you're growing everything," said Roberts.

Stabenow said farm bill hearings will continue throughout this year and into next year in Washington, D.C., as well as locations around the country. Stabenow said she also intends to conduct a number of listening sessions across Michigan to meet with local growers and community leaders.