Stabenow hears from farmers on challenges, aid as Farm Bill work starts

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

East Lansing — U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow spoke with Michigan farmers, food producers and food aid distributors Friday at Michigan State University to gather testimony to develop the 2023 Farm Bill, legislation passed about every five years to aid the country's farm and food economy. 

More than a dozen individuals engaged in Michigan's agriculture and food services testified about the programs provided through the 2018 bill and potential improvements to the aid during the hearing with the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, chaired by Stabenow, D-Lansing.

Sens. John Boozman, R-Arkansas and Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, listen to testimony at the start of the first hearing of the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry on the 2023 Farm Bill on Friday, April 29, 2022.

The next farm bill isn't likely to be finalized until late 2023. The next field hearing will be in Arkansas, the district of Republican Sen. John Boozman, who serves as the ranking member on the committee. 

Among the issues discussed Friday were the recently inflated cost of farming, government-aided conservation programs, farm loan cap increases, training and improvements to the organic certification process. 

"One of the things that came up over and over again is crop insurance, which is so critical, particularly in these times with the weather getting worse and worse and worse," Stabenow said. "They’re not asking for a handout; what they want is help to make sure there’s a backstop that helps with them with their risk.”

Some Michigan cherry growers last year experienced a cherrypocalypse, when the crop was reduced by four days of rain that split cherries as well as an Arctic blast that ruined earlier-than-usual buds in the spring. In the past decade, the state has also dealt with drought-like conditions that stunted yields of certain types of crops. In those instances, crop insurance provided some relief.

Both Stabenow and Boozman acknowledged that the circumstances of the last few years — and the supply chain woes they created — had added stresses and inflated costs for farmers, food distributors and food aid agencies that may need to be addressed in the next bill. 

"We’re really in uncharted waters right now in these areas," Boozman said. "When we write the Farm Bill next year, we’re going to be in a very different situation than we were in previous years.”

Glen Chown, executive director for the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, told Stabenow and Boozman that he's concerned about the bureaucracy involved in obtaining some agricultural aid through the Farm Bill and the need to streamline the process. He also noted the need to maintain institutional knowledge, potentially through extension workers, now that the average of a farmer in Michigan is in the low 60s. 

"We are about to see a massive transfer of land and that is going to have enormous implications," Chown said. "Extension gives farmers resources they need for planning, for technical assistance. ...This is a time when we need a strong extension more than ever."

Other farmers noted harsh weather conditions in recent years made the need for crop insurance more critical than ever. 

U.S. Sens. John Boozman, right, R-Arkansas, and Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, speak with reporters after taking testimony ahead of the 2023 Farm Bill at Michigan State University on Friday, April 29, 2022.

Juliette King McAvoy, of King Orchards in Central Lake,  said her farm has experienced four crop losses in 19 years, including two back-to-back losses over the last two years. 

"The frequency of the spring frost is increasing," McAvoy said. "In addition we’re seeing less frequent but more severe rain events. Those are less nourishing to the plants and trees and causes erosion and flooding...Crop insurance absolutely helps us manage this risk.”

The 2018 farm bill was estimated to cost about $867 billion over a decade and covered issues such as farm subsidies, conservation programs, forest management, trade promotion, rural broadband and urban agriculture.