MONTICELLO -- Farmers are in a difficult situation with rising interest rates and rely on commodity prices to cover their costs, U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Arkansas, said Tuesday.
It's an issue Boozman indicated that concerned him most following a stop on his Farm Bill Listening Tour at the University of Arkansas at Monticello agriculture building on Tuesday. The farm bill, a common name for the Agriculture Improvement Act, provides for programs through the Department of Agriculture to sustain or enhance quality of life and addresses commodity support, nutrition assistance, farm credit and crop insurance, among other things.
The current farm bill, enacted in 2018, will expire at the end of September. Boozman is touring the state this month to listen to farmers and foresters for their input into the 2023 version of the bill. His first stop was Monday in Fort Smith.
"The cost of fertilizer is almost doubling, the cost of diesel, all the things they need," said Boozman, the ranking member of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee. "Commodity prices have gone up some, but not enough to cover the cost, and you always worry about the input cost staying up and the commodity prices falling."
Boozman invited U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R., who represents Arkansas' Fourth District including Pine Bluff and portions of southeast Arkansas, to the listening session. Westerman said the farm bill presents an opportunity for more specialty crops to be addressed.
"As you talk to people here and all over the country and in Washington, the issues are the same, making sure that we have safety nets in place that they need so they can continue operations, and again quality-of-life issues throughout rural America, making sure we're investing in hospitals and schools, making it such that life can continue on. Broadband is such a big issue in rural America," Boozman said.
The farm bill traditionally helps farmers access "safety nets" such as loans and price loss coverage (PLC). Southeast Arkansas farmers have sustained losses to their farm due to heavy rains and floods in recent years, and some have seen the cost of their operations rise to the effects of the pandemic.
"Crop insurance has got to be able to subsidize that so they can make their tractor payments, make their payments on the inputs they purchase, make their debt service payments to the bank," said Mark Tiner, a loan officer at Monticello's Union Bank who was among a panel of local farming and business leaders. "There are some other issues that come in. The covid deal has just made prices go up, and that's also an issue for our farmers."
Much of Arkansas endured a loss of power due to ice storms earlier this month, but Matthew Pelkki, chairman of the College of Forestry, Agriculture and Natural Resources at UAM, hopes the farm bill will ensure wood pellets play a role in providing sustainable energy and improve forest health.
"It's a readily available technology that we can use in our current coal-fired power plants to reduce carbon emissions and have durable power, and at the same time, we're going to improve the health of our forest by taking small pulpwood and other material," Pelkki said of wood pellets. "I applaud all the research in our biofuels, but we've got a fix for the problem right now that works. And, they've done it in the United Kingdom. Why can't we do it here?"
Under the farm bill, a program known as EQIP -- Environmental Quality Incentives Program -- helps farmers, ranchers and forest landowners integrate conservation into working lands, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. EQIP is key to an initiative at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff that helps stem the loss of forestland owned by African Americans known as "Keeping it in the Family."
"It's a cost-share assistance program for minority landowners that pays 90% of the cost," said Joe Friend, an extension associate-forester at UAPB. "They provide funding to help landowners do necessary things such as sap reparation and tree planting or timber stem improvement."
Programs such as "Keeping it in the Family" will go a long way toward helping landowners if the 2023 farm bill continues EQIP, according to Friend.
Agriculture accounts for 25% of the Arkansas economy, but in areas outside of cities, that percentage can rise to about 85 to 90%, Boozman said.
"We've lost our manufacturing," Boozman said. "Farming is all that's left, so it's so important we put in place in the farm bill the things we need to make sure our farmers can continue on and get the loans they need, and they can have some economic certainty."