Before the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture starts writing the next Farm Bill, committee members wanted to hear farmers' real-life stories.


     Before the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture starts writing the next Farm Bill, committee members wanted to hear farmers' real-life stories.
     The committee's need for information brought three congressmen to Dodge City, where more than 100 people gathered for a field hearing on Friday at Magouirk Conference Center.
     U.S. Reps. Frank Lucas, Tim Huelskamp and Michael Conaway heard testimony from 10 farmers and ranchers, who described what they would like to see in the next Farm Bill.
     Every five years, the Farm Bill sets policies for a broad array of federal programs, including nutrition, crop support and conservation. The measure makes up about 2 percent of all federal spending, but it affects every American.
     Nutrition programs account for approximately 80 percent of Farm Bill spending. The rest supports farmers, ranchers and consumers through a variety of programs.
     The current Farm Bill will expires Sept. 30 unless Congress extends it or approves new legislation.

Keeping principles in mind
     The 1996 Farm Bill offered producers a level of flexibility that they had not seen before, said Scott Neufeld, a third-generation farmer from Fairview, Okla. He urged lawmakers to keep that principle in mind as they draft the new legislation.
     "The 2002 and 2008 Farm Bills continued on those principles, including protection against low prices, which lessened the need for ad hoc disaster assistance and have provided good management tools for producers to navigate risk," Neufeld said. "Did previous Farm Bills accomplish their goals? In most cases, they have served producers well. Could they be improved? Always."
     The farmers and ranchers' individual stories varied, but they emphasized common themes: Eliminate burdensome regulations, protect producers against steep drops in crop prices and provide a safety net for producers who suffer catastrophic losses.
     Gary Harshberger, a farmer and cow/calf producer from Dodge City, said he thought Congress should take a look at crop insurance for limited irrigation.
     "There needs to be a viable policy in federal crop insurance to have limited-type irrigation practices," he said. "There has been talk about this at the state level, but nothing has been developed yet. This type of policy would allow producers to raise feed while using less water."
     Lucas, Huelskamp and Conaway listened intently to the testimony, reserving their questions until the witnesses were finished.
     Huelskamp said he invited a representative from the Environmental Protection Agency to attend the hearing, but no one took him up on the invitation. That led the congressman to ask Harshberger what he would say about his interest in protecting the environment.
Harshberger said he would tell the EPA that farmers already know what they need for their land.
     "I've always stated that farmers are actually environmentalists," he said. "Our livelihood depends upon the health of that earth, so we are the world's conservationists."
     Harshberger said farmers are already taking steps to protect the environment, such as water conservation. But he said the federal government could help farmers take those efforts to the next level.

'Agriculture on display'
    Several witnesses said they realized that Congress must balance their interests against the need to produce fiscally responsible legislation.
     Zachary Hunicutt, a fifth-generation farmer from Nebraska, said lawmakers will need to produce a bill that they can easily explain to voters.
     "Agriculture is on display and under the microscope like never before, and there will be much public scrutiny of any government spending in this arena," he said. "In a time where the 24-hour news cycle has been shortened even further to the 140-character cycle, misinformation and misunderstandings can have tremendous impacts in a very short amount of time. It is critical that the aims and motivations of this legislation be presented in a way that makes sense to an ever-more interested public."
     Following the hearing, Huelskamp said the testimony reminded him that the next Farm Bill must give producers the flexibility they need to respond to market signals. He said the measure will affect farmers' ability to market their crops to foreign countries.
     "If we did this Farm Bill wrong and took away the flexibility and made farmers rely solely on government programs, that would lose for the next decade or so our ability to export around the world," Huelskamp said.

Reach Eric Swanson at (620) 408-9917 or email him at eric.swanson@dodgeglobe.com.