WASHINGTON, D.C. – Autumn in farm country brings with it the roar of combines lumbering across America’s farm fields. It’s harvest season and across the land, farmers are hard at work bringing in the bounty of what, in many areas, amounts to a “pretty good year.” The farm policy landscape, on the other hand, has yielded little, thanks to the frosty bite of American politics.
Because of congressional inability to reach a consensus, the nation’s farm bill has expired – an occurrence that might have been lost in the hubbub of the larger government shutdown. This is not the first sign of farm bill trouble. It would have expired a year ago had Congress not simply extended it for another year due to disagreements and partisan paralysis.
Gone with the farm bill is the basic, no-frills safety net for farm families. Gone is the publicly recognized good of government-backed food security for our nation. Gone is the direct link between the people who farm and those Americans who feel the daily pang of hunger.
Two heartland farmers we spoke with were disappointed, even gloomy about these losses. Glen Brunkow shared that feeling as he steered his combine into the afternoon sun on his farm in Pottawatomie County, Kan.
“I am very, very disappointed that Congress would play political football with something that is as important as our nation’s farm bill,” Brunkow said. “Crop insurance as a safety net is important to me and most other farmers I know. Without crop insurance, and the promise of crop insurance, farmers cannot secure the operating loans they need to make it through another year.”
Brunkow said without incentives included in the farm bill to purchase crop insurance, the product simply is not affordable for most farmers. He said the difference is $40 to $50 an acre.
“I just can’t imagine going through a crop year without having a safety net,” Brunkow said. “We had adequate rainfall this year, but not enough rainfall to restore soil moisture. We are just one dry spell away from being in another drought and I cannot imagine going into that not knowing that I have crop insurance to help at least pay my fixed costs back.
“We are not talking about making a profit off of crop insurance. We are talking about just paying our fixed costs – our land costs, our seed, our fertilizer, our fuel costs, just enough to make it so we can carry on into another year.”
According to Brunkow, crop insurance is keeping some farmers in business this year, helping them weather through one of the worst drought periods since the Dust Bowl. The prospect of that safety net being in place for the next growing season rests at the doorstep of Congress.
“We each need to contact our members of Congress and let them know how important this is,” Brunkow said. “We need to let them know we rely on and need crop insurance. And it is not just us; it’s everyone up and down the Main Streets of our rural communities. Our rural communities rely on us. We are the foundation, the building block of the rural economy. When we have a good year, Main Street has a good year.”
Meanwhile, about 150 miles north and east of Brunkow, in Atchison County, Mo., Blake Hurst has his combines lined up and ready to start the harvest. Like Brunkow, he is living on the edge of drought. Due to drier conditions during key growing periods, Hurst believes he is looking at a corn crop that is two-thirds to three-fourths of optimal and a soybean crop that is on the lower side of that range.
Hurst, who is president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, considers this a drought year, just not quite as severe as the one he and other farmers faced in 2012. However, it is the first time he has faced two consecutive drought years in his 35 years of farming.
“Crop insurance kept everything together last year,” Hurst said. “Crop insurance was the difference for me between a large loss and a small profit. Crop insurance is extremely important.”
Not knowing whether he will have that key risk management tool heading into next year is more than a little disconcerting for the Missouri farmer.
“It’s the uncertainty of it,” Hurst said. “I can’t really plan on what the crop insurance program might be next year. I don’t really know how long it will last. I don’t know what will be required of me as far as qualifying for crop insurance and what will be required from me as far as premiums.
“We already have enough uncertainty in farming from weather, bad prices, which currently means 45 percent lower prices for corn than they were last year. So, I already have uncertainty without uncertainty caused by the political situation as well.”
Hurst explained that farmers are constantly living under time constraints. If they are not able to harvest all their crops before the snow starts to fly in the Midwest, they face the prospect of huge yield losses, which drastically impacts the bottom line.
“It’s much like Congress with the farm bill expiring,” Hurst explained. “We know that no matter what happens, we will get our harvest out this year. Congress is a year late in getting its job done on the farm bill. It is expiring now and that is after a one-year extension. And now, even that has expired. Of course, Mother Nature never gives me a one-year extension on harvest. If I don’t get it done, I just lose the crop.”
He believes that if members of Congress could feel the same kind of time pressure he experiences during harvest, it could possibly make a difference.
“I don’t know what the parable is to this story, but if I do not get my harvest done, I don’t have any income for the year,” Hurst said. “If I were to leave 30 percent of my crop in the field because I just don’t work hard enough to finish, I lose 30 percent of my income. Members of Congress seem to be able to maintain their income, while leaving well over 30 percent of their work in the field. It wouldn’t be a bad idea if we said that if they did not renew bills on time, if they didn’t finish a budget, if they didn’t finish appropriations bills, that maybe they ought to face the same penalties that any small business might face when they do not get their work done.”
Meanwhile, the farm bill has expired, and government has shut down due to partisan politics. Both Hurst and Brunkow are hopeful both situations are settled before they bring in their last bushels and park their combines in their machine sheds. Otherwise, both know that it could be a long, cold winter for farmers and all Americans.