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Blog | March 6, 2024

Here are seven ways we can improve the farm safety net

by Hannah Tremblay

Farmers have the extremely important job of growing our food and fiber and stewarding America’s land. They also face unique challenges: tight economic conditions, extreme weather events, highly consolidated markets and – for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) farmers, historic inequity that stacks the cards against them. Because of their important role, farmers receive support from the federal government through crop insurance, commodity, and disaster assistance programs – this support is known as the “farm safety net,” and it’s absolutely essential for farmers, our food system, and all of us who eat.

Despite being widely recognized as an important resource, U.S. agriculture is in trouble; the recently released 2022 Census of Agriculture revealed some troubling statistics:

  • we now have the smallest number of farms – 1.9 million – since 1850;
  • the size of the average farm has increased, up 5%, demonstrating the continued concentration of farmland into fewer hands;
  • nearly four out of every 10 farmers are over the age of 65;
  • and the lack of a diverse farmer population (95% are white).

If we’re going to ensure a sustainable farm and food system going forward, we need more farmers on the land, including new and young farmers, and a diversity of farmers growing a diversity of crops.

Federal farm policy has undoubtedly contributed to the statistics borne out in the 2022 Census of Agriculture. Federal programs and funding that make up the farm safety net were intended to protect farmers in the face of instability and disaster, for the sake of our shared food system and farmland. However, as our friends at NSAC recently reported, the way the farm safety net currently functions isn’t serving the majority of America’s farmers.

Luckily, Congress has the opportunity to address these challenges in the next farm bill. Here are some of Farm Aid’s ideas, along with policy solutions, for what a sustainable safety net that serves all, not just a few, farmers, would look like:

1. Crop insurance that works for more farmers

Crop insurance is intended to help out farmers who suffer from yield losses or low crop prices. For the most part, crop insurance is tailored to large–scale commodity growers; it’s not a viable option for small, beginning, specialty crop (fruits, vegetables, nuts and nursery crops) and diversified farmers. Rather, a disproportionate amount of commodity farmers receive the majority of payments.

Whole Farm Revenue Protection is a good alternative to traditional crop insurance. It is crop–neutral and protects a farmer’s entire operation, not just one crop, making it more suitable for diversified farms. The program is not without its faults, but thankfully, there’s a proposed bill to help. The Whole Farm Revenue Protection Program Improvement Act makes important improvements by streamlining paperwork, raising the limit to annual revenue expansion, strengthening the diversification discount and compensating crop insurances who sell this program appropriately.

2. Leveling the playing field for BIPOC farmers

Along with everything else farmers face, BIPOC farmers must contend with the additional challenge of historic discrimination, which has played a significant part in reducing the number of Black farmers and Black–owned land over the last century. The Justice for Black Farmers Act would keep farmers on their land and operating farms by protecting Black farmers from discrimination, protecting remaining Black farmers from land loss, restoring the land base lost by Black farmers, and assisting all socially disadvantaged* farmers and ranchers.

*The USDA defines socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers (SDFRs) as those belonging to groups that have been subject to racial or ethnic prejudice. SDFRs include farmers who are Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Hispanic or Latino, and Asian or Pacific Islander. For some but not all USDA programs, the SDFR category also includes women.

3. More access to conservation programs

The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), signed into law on August 16, 2022, provides funding for climate–smart agriculture and conservation practices. Through the IRA, funding nearly doubled for NRCS’s core conservation programs, like EQIP and CSP – both of which are extremely popular but chronically underfunded. These are also programs that are well–used by small and diversified farmers. Protecting Inflation Reduction Act funding is an important means of ensuring that farmers can continue to access conservation programs, allowing them to practice climate–smart agriculture and protect our natural resources.

Major weather disasters caused over $21 billion in crop losses in 2022 and losses are projected to increase as climate change worsens.

4. Investments in climate-smart and resilient agriculture

Similarly to the IRA, the Agricultural Resilience Act would help farmers mitigate the effects of climate change and would give agricultural producers the support they need to participate in conservation practices, while playing an integral part in being a solution to climate change. The incentive–based conservation options provided through the Agricultural Resilience Act lower the risks that farmers take when they change to practices that make more sense for the environment.

5. Lowering the barrier for credit access

Farmers rely on agricultural credit as a critical financial tool to plant crops, as well as to invest in sustainable practices, purchase livestock, replace old machinery, and navigate marketplace disruptions. “The USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) is known as the ‘lender of last resort’ for farmers who cannot access credit at commercial banks, but for many family farmers FSA is the only option. Without basic farmer borrower protections, strong institutional oversight, and flexible lending terms, farmers can face predatory lending practices, discrimination, and an extractive relationship with lenders. The situation is even more challenging for Black farmers, who have experienced decades of discriminatory lending practices from the USDA as well as private lending institutions,” Farm Aid partners RAFI and NFFC report. The Fair Credit for Farmers Act would enact loan payment deferrals, waive loan fees for historically underserved borrowers, limit the amount of collateral a farmer has to use to get a loan, and make other important reforms to FSA’s lending processes.

6. Protection for farmers trying to do the right thing

A good farm safety net would be there for farmers who have to take land out of production unexpectedly in order to protect themselves and eaters, as has happened with farmers who are affected by PFAS, the man–made “forever” chemicals that have infiltrated our soil and water. Farm Aid’s partner, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, has helped develop the Relief for Farmers Hit with PFAS Act which would provide farmers with financial assistance if they find PFAS on their farm, assist with remediation strategies, and provide support for testing farm soil for PFAS, allowing farmers to test their soil and remediate their land without fear of losing their businesses.

7. A safety net for catastrophic weather events

Major weather disasters caused over $21 billion in crop losses in 2022 and losses are projected to increase as climate change worsens. After a weather disaster, uninsured farmers are often left scrambling to rebuild and navigate burdensome administrative logistics, which pose a distinct disadvantage for small and diversified farms. The WEATHER Act would create an index–based insurance policy that compensates farmers’ income losses in correlation with weather conditions. This bill would support farmers facing income losses after extreme weather events by reducing administrative burdens as well as ensuring that insurance payouts are based on agricultural income loss.

Think our farmers could benefit from this type of safety net and these policies? Head over to our Take Action page and make your voice heard!

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