Traveling Kansas for his listening tours the past few weeks,
Tim Huelskamp knows all to well the conditions that plague his Big
Not that the fifth-generation Republican farmer hasn't been through droughts. His family's Fowler-area farm is in the heart of southwest Kansas' semi-arid plains - a landscape that has prospered under the advent of irrigation.
with temperatures soaring above 100 degrees and little rainfall coming
from the sky, even the center-pivots can't keep some corn from burning
in the field.
Times like these make farm subsidies like crop insurance even more important, the freshman congressman said.
However, with a looming trillion-plus-dollar debt coupled with a Congress generations removed from the family farm, Huelskamp, whose own family farm receives farm subsidies, admits some of his fellow lawmakers aren't tuned in to what is happening in the Farm Belt.
don't think Congress has a clue what is going on," he said, noting that
in being one of just a dozen or so farmers represented in the House,
it's tough "convincing an urban Congress what is going on in rural
That includes the use of farm subsidies.
With a swollen deficit and intense congressional debate on slashing the budget, farm programs again are on the chopping block.
says farmers tell him they know they will have to take a hit, but
they're concerned what and how much leaders might target. Potential
programs include direct payments, conservation funding and crop
"In general most of the farmers who speak up recognize
we have a spending program," Huelskamp said. "They want to do their fair
share. They recognize something is going to have to give."
payments are the main target, he said, but noted farmers are worried
Congress might cut drastically from another area that has helped them
amid the lingering drought - crop insurance.Forming a farm bill
When Franklin Roosevelt signed the first farm policy into law in May 1933, he promised it would be a temporary measure.
Nearly 80 years later - though tinkered with over the years - the government program is still is in place.
The current farm
bill doesn't end until 2012, but amid the more than $14 trillion budget
crisis, Congress already is working on the latest measure - one that
falls in a far different era than the New Deal period, or even a decade
The top two priorities for Roosevelt's administration were to save the family farm
and help rural America - providing a safety net as prices plummeted.
But these days, most Americans are far removed from the land. Unlike the
1930s when 25 percent of the U.S. population lived on farms, today that figure is less than 2 percent.
About every five years, however, lawmakers construct a new farm bill - one that today has more to do with nutrition than farm programs.
When the latest farm
bill was enacted in 2008, Congress estimated the cost at $284 billion
over five years, with 67 percent going to nutrition programs, 15 percent
to commodity programs, 9 percent to conservation and 8 percent to crop
insurance, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Kansas farmers still receive a boost from subsidies: Kansas ranked
fifth in the nation in 2010 for subsidy payments with $931 million
handed out, according to the Environmental Working Group.
The group is an opponent of government subsidies, saying 10 percent of U.S. farmers receive almost 75 percent of the payments.
Meanwhile, others argue over whether payments are needed at all. Although net farm income is expected to fall in Kansas because of drought and other weather events, they cite that national farm income should rise again this year as commodity prices have remained at higher levels the past few years.
the drought this year, even Kansas farmers have had a string of good
years, said Troy Dumler, a Kansas State University agriculture economist
based in Garden City. He said the past four years in terms of profits
have been the best since the Russia wheat deal in the 1970s - if not
"If the goal is to reduce farm subsidies, now is the time to do it," Dumler said. "Farm
income will be high; farmers are in the best position they have been in
recent memory to handle those cuts. They are getting a lot more return
from the market and that doesn't look like that will go away this year."
said farmers averaged $118,000 from 2007 to 2010. If Congress were to
get rid of all government payments - commodity, conservation and
disaster subsides except for crop insurance - net farm income would drop about $20,000 to $98,000.
probably would not feel the hit as much as smaller farmers, he said.
However, he noted, he doesn't expect cuts to be that drastic.
impact to rural America is what concerns Minneapolis farmer Steve
Baccus. While commodity prices are higher, machinery costs have
skyrocketed, as well as other inputs like fuel and fertilizer.
Already rural American is on the decline, said Baccus, president of the Kansas Farm
Bureau. The 2010 census showed 77 Kansas counties lost population in
the past decade. Of those, 23 saw declines of more than 10 percent.
Baccus said the government already has cut crop insurance by $12 billion in the past couple of years.
feel like we've already contributed a lot already," he said. "Main
Street rural America is going to feel it if it goes the way it sounds
like it could go."Targeting direct payments
The biggest hit
probably will come from direct payments, which totaled about $5 billion
last year, Dumler estimated. Commodities eligible include grains, like
wheat and corn, as well as cotton, rice and peanuts.
direct payments - which are made regardless of whether prices fall - are
popular in the South with cotton and rice farmers - crops that can be
more expensive to grow. Lawmakers in those areas say fewer cuts should
be taken from the direct-payment program and more from crop insurance.
Midwest farmers depend on crop insurance more than those in the South -
especially this year as drought, flooding and hail affected states such
Baccus said he is concerned that without subsidized
crop insurance, farmers wouldn't be able to afford coverage from the
"The South, they'll fight tooth and nail to keep"
direct payments, he said. "But we have real concerns about the cuts -
primarily to the risk management programs if you are farming from Texas to Minnesota."
On his own farm,
he has 300 acres of corn that an adjuster appraised at 20 bushels an
acre. Conditions worsen in southwest Kansas, he said, where some corn
under center-pivot irrigation already has been chopped for silage.
"It's pretty sad," he said.
Davis, director of the U.S. Agriculture Department's Risk Management
Agency in Topeka, said her agency has paid out more than $155 million in
crop insurance indemnity payments this year. Of that, $142 million was
"And it is still going up," she said, noting fall crop estimates are trickling in from adjusters.
all, Davis estimated that about 85 percent of Kansas farmers
participate in the government's crop insurance program. The government
subsidizes 59 percent of the premium.Their two cents
the Senate Agriculture Committee will conduct a hearing in Wichita to
hear from Kansas producers and leaders about their thoughts on the farm bill.
a Senate hearing in May, Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack said the USDA was
prepared to do as much with fewer resources, but "there is no doubt that
cuts will have real impacts for American agriculture and the American
"There will be pain and everyone will have to sacrifice something," Vilsack testified. "There are no easy cuts."
the final 2012 bill will eventually look like in the end is anyone's
guess, said Karl Esping, a Lindsborg farmer who also is chairman of the
Kansas Sunflower Commission and serves on the National Sunflower
His wife's family began farming in 1869 in McPherson County, and Esping is still farming that land. Now his son is helping with the operation, the sixth generation.
with Baccus, Esping said he would be presenting his own views at
Thursday's hearing. He will talk about research and development - about
the need to feed a world of more than 9 billion by 2050. He will talk
about the need for an abundant and safe food supply.
He will also stress the priority of crop insurance as an important risk management tool.
said he has watched as farmers across McPherson County have had to chop
their dryland corn for silage as drought conditions linger. Even his
own crops are suffering, he said.
He went to Washington in February, stopping in 18 different congressional offices to talk about farm policy. He knows the current budget situation.
He knows something is going away.
"We all know the troubles that our country is in financially, and we know that farm programs are under extreme scrutiny," he said. "We know we need to share."