In the middle of April, I presented at two conferences; one in Fargo and the other in Brussels, Belgium. The Fargo conference was hosted by the Center for Agricultural Policy and Trade Studies and focused on farm policy and the 2018 Farm Bill. The meeting in Brussels addressed food security and value-added agriculture.
My message, at both, was family farms and ranches globally provide an abundance of commodities to meet the food, feed, fiber and energy needs of the world. The family farm style of agriculture has the capacity and has proven its ability to be sustainable and more than meet world demand. The fact that we still have hungry people in this world is due to logistics, food distribution issues and ability to pay. These factors could be resolved if countries and their governments were willing, and agreed, to address the issues.
So, what is the problem? Even though we have a tremendously successful food production system, it is being exploited by undervaluing the importance of food and those who grow it.
Farmers and ranchers are continuously told to become more efficient in order for their operations to survive. In the United States, the farmer’s share of the retail food dollar continues to shrink. It has dropped from $0.47 in 1952 to $0.17 today. And commodity prices in real dollars continue to trend downward and only respond upward when an unforeseen demand enters the marketplace, such as ethanol production in 2010.
Because farm gate prices are based on the amount of overproduction or oversupply of a commodity, the gains farmers make in efficiency and yield production ultimately hurt them. Farmers are price takers and have no avenue to pass on cost of production or expenses that rarely drop when commodity prices fall.
From my perspective, it is time that we quit undervaluing food and food production by family farmers and ranchers. Next to air and water, food is essential for human life and should not be taken for granted.
We all need to understand that an abundant supply of food is not a negative. It should not lower the prices paid to farmers. We need family farmers, as they are the true stewards of the land. We need the family farm system of agriculture to train the next generation of farmers. Farms need a profit margin to maintain their operations, to adopt technology, to conserve and maintain the soil, and to be good neighbors to urban centers that rely on them.
In our great country, we are spending less than .28 percent of the entire U.S. budget on farm programs that support production agriculture, crop insurance and conservation. I do not think that is too much to ask. The farm bill ensures consumers spend less than 10 percent of their disposable income on food and puts safety net provisions in place to protect farmers against weather and price declines. Frankly, it is not enough and we need to increase support levels.
Farmers are struggling. We are seeing the start of a farm crisis and the silence that precedes it. Let’s work to enhance our safety net before we lose a generation of very talented family farmers and ranchers.
– NDFU President Mark Watne