JONESBORO -- The top-ranking members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry heard Friday from Arkansas farmers, advocates and government workers about the challenges facing the industry, from high crop insurance rates and rising farm expenses to lower profits and shrinking acreage of crops like rice.
U.S. Sen. and ranking committee member John Boozman and committee Chair Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), listened to agriculture workers' concerns as they gather information in the months leading up to a 2023 reauthorization of the federal Farm Bill.
"The answers need to come from the ground up," Boozman said.
There are 42,000 farmers and ranchers operating on 14 million acres in Arkansas. Food and agriculture production in the state supports nearly 500,000 jobs, Boozman said.
"As we are, hopefully, exiting a worldwide pandemic, we have to be very sensible about what happened to our food chain, what we all encountered and worried about when we saw empty shelves in our grocery stores," Arkansas Farm Bureau President Rich Hillman said at the hearing.
"We learned that our food chain that has served us all well for decades, wasn't as strong as it needed to be. We learned of a few weak links that were pulled apart, thankfully, for just a short time. But because of those issues, and good old American ingenuity, we have an even more efficient, sustainable food chain than before the pandemic."
"The American farmer and rancher were, are, and will be part of that solution," Hillman said.
Agricultural Council of Arkansas Executive Vice President and Director Andrew Grobmyer said the goal is not to deconstruct the current Farm Bill, but to build upon it.
"All of the witnesses on the row crop side expressed that the economics of farming today and in recent years has changed a lot from the economics of the time in which the last Farm Bill was written," Grobmyer said. "And there's a common thread, or pursuit, to make sure this Farm Bill is reflective of the economics of agriculture today."
The Farm Bill, signed into law in late 2018, authorizes federal policies governing food like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), supports agriculture workers and provides community food access. It is supposed to be reauthorized every five years.
USA Rice Federation Sustainability Committee Chair and Newport rice farmer Jennifer James testified that there is a "very real and present crisis in the U.S. rice industry" and called for help to create economic sustainability for rice farmers.
"Currently, rice has been disproportionately affected by steep increases in input costs and we have not seen corresponding increases in the price of rice," James said.
USA Rice sent letters to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack outlining the financial situation of the rice industry on Feb. 25 and again on May 25, asking for $400 million in direct relief for farmers to "weather current conditions."
The second letter referenced a Texas A&M University Agricultural and Food Policy Center study in May about the impact of higher farming input costs and commodity price changes on 64 farms. The report said that 10 of the 15 rice farms in the study would sustain losses in 2022.
Arkansas rice accounted for 47.5% of total U.S. rice production in 2021 and it is one of the top three crop commodities in cash receipts for the state's farmers, according to the University of Arkansas System's research and extension arm.
James said current estimates show U.S. rice acres will decline by 27% this year compared to last year.
"The costs for all commodities are going up every day. That's the input costs, so that means the farmers are taking much greater risks on their crops, and rice in particular has not seen the rise in its futures price relative to other commodities," Grobmyer said.
"So it's a matter of competing for planted acres and right now, rice acres are looking to be down substantially and that's going to cause some issues not just for farmers, but for the whole industry, the rice mills and so forth, that depend on volume for their business. If they don't have sufficient volume, they're not able to cover their costs, maintain their employees and all of that infrastructure."
Fifth-generation farmer Mark Morgan of Peach Pickin' Paradise and Morgan Farms in Clarksville returned to farming after earning a master's degree to continue a family tradition. Morgan said he and other farmers today want to see advancements in risk management options, especially for specialty crop growers.
"One of the most important things we've struggled with, me personally and especially crop producers, is crop insurance," Morgan testified. "Our premiums are so high for our losses."
"Last year, April 20, we had a freeze. This year ... Easter Sunday, we had hail. It changes all the time. We don't ask for much, but better risk protection packages through crop insurance is something we'd really like to see."
Food producers, and particularly specialty crop growers, need protection from unforeseen events like severe weather or a bad harvest to continue farming, Morgan said.
"The biggest sustainability issue we have in specialty crops is not having the risk management tools when you have two or three bad years in a row, we just want something a little bit more reliable. I love growing peaches, it's what I came back to do and I love my job. I just want for myself and others to keep that going."
Friday's meeting at Arkansas State University marked the second U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee field hearing this year. The first field hearing of the 117th Congress to discuss the 2023 Farm Bill was held in Stabenow's home state at Michigan State University on April 29.