We talk Farm Bill, crop insurance and more on Totally Rural Podcast

Totally Rural is a brand new podcast dedicated to increasing awareness and expanding the discussion of rural issues. The Center for Rural Affairs had the honor of appearing on its second podcast, talking about our organization, the 2018 Farm Bill, beginning farmers and more.

Brian Depew, executive director, and Anna Johnson, policy program associate, chatted with host Daisy Dyer Duerr, a former secondary school principal.

About the Center for Rural Affairs

One of the Center’s goals is to be a leading force engaging people and ideas, and building a better future for rural America. We do that work across the nation from a home office in Lyons, Neb., population 850, with additional offices in Hartington, Neb., and Nevada, Iowa.

“All of our work really hangs together around our vision of creating more just and more vibrant small towns,” Depew said. “Especially small towns where the people who live there are engaged in choices that will help determine their own future.”

The executive director explained the Center’s work in three major program areas.

  1. Small business development: The Center has 10 loan specialists in geographic districts across Nebraska working directly with small-town business owners and aspiring business owners. They help with business plans and startup strategies, and make loans to those who can’t access traditional credit. The Center is recognized as a Community Development Financial Institution. The organization has placed approximately $1.7 million in small business loans in the last fiscal year.
  2. Farm and community development: The Center’s efforts include work with beginning farmers and family farmers on farm conservation strategies and farm profitability. This work also includes community leadership development in small communities.
  3. Policy advocacy: The Center works on a wide range of policy issues across the nation. If it affects small towns and rural people, the Center has probably worked on it in its nearly 45 years of existence.

The Center was founded by two people who were working on poverty issues for a community action agency in northeast Nebraska. They decided they could not get at the root of rural poverty issues if they couldn’t also work on policy. The federal government funded community action agencies, so they were restricted from engaging in policy advocacy. Thus, the Center was formed.

“Just little tidbits that I’ve looked at of what you guys are doing is so amazing to me,” Duerr said.

Policy work

Johnson’s work is mostly on three areas of agricultural policy: crop insurance, conservation and beginning farmers. She is based in the Nevada, Iowa, office.

Most of the Center’s policy priorities stem from a large base of farmer supporters in Nebraska, Iowa and throughout the Midwest. Johnson and our policy team identify their concerns and then will partner with them to talk to their legislators.

“Legislators don’t necessarily want to hear from me, sitting here in Iowa, but they definitely want to hear from their farmer constituents,” Johnson said. “We’ve had phone calls with representatives, we’ve gone to their in-state offices, and we have flown out to D.C. with a couple of farmer supporters to meet with their representatives in person.”

The Center not only works on agricultural policy. The organization also works on tax, health, education, energy and environment policy in Washington, D.C., Nebraska and Iowa.

“The important thing about policy advocacy work is to always stay in the game,” Depew said. “If there’s a policy issue that’s gaining traction at the statehouses in Nebraska or Iowa or in D.C., we want to ask the questions, ‘What is the impact of these proposed policies for rural people and rural places? How could we strengthen these policies to help create a more vibrant and inclusive rural future?’”

2018 Farm Bill

The 2018 Farm Bill is a piece of legislation that Congress should be working on in the next 18 months. The bill controls farm and conservation spending, and has a wide range of support and programs for farms and small towns. The Center plans to watch this very closely.

“It’s an omnibus bill and it’s only up every five years,” Depew said. “It’s a pretty important bill for rural people and rural places. If you care about conservation, if you care about programs to support the next generation of farmers, if you care about rural development, it’s all in the farm bill.”

“I think another important thing is, ‘farm bill’ is a bit of a misnomer,” Depew continued. “It’s really the major vehicle for programs and spending related to rural small business development, rural housing programs, even broadband infrastructure and rural electric co-ops. So, if you live in a rural place, you are probably affected, directly or indirectly. Your community, your business and your local main street are impacted by the programs in the farm bill.”

‘Rural Bill’

“We should really be thinking of this more as the Rural Bill, because it’s going to impact us whether we’re living on a farm or not,” Duerr said. “If we’re living in a rural area of America, this is somehow going to touch us.”

Duerr said that she never would have thought the farm bill included broadband or small business development.

Depew explained that one piece of the farm bill, the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program, originated with the Center. It was added to the 2008 Farm Bill and won renewal in 2012. The program has supported small business development in almost every state and has pumped about $50 million worth of support into rural small business development.

The Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program is just one of the Center’s priorities for the 2018 Farm Bill.

“Small business development is a key economic development strategy for small towns,” Depew said. “The Center has been doing small business development for 15 or 20 years, because we identified small business as a key way to diversify rural economies.”

Crop insurance

Crop insurance is another Center priority for the 2018 Farm Bill.

“Crop insurance was created by the government because farming comes with inherent risks related to weather and to markets,” Johnson said. “The government pays for part of the premiums that farmers pay for the crop insurance, and they also administer programs.”

She noted that crop insurance is an important piece of the agricultural economy. However, there are concerns with how it operates. For example, there is currently not a limit on the amount of funding the government will pay out to an individual farmer.

“If I wanted to farm my entire state, I could buy crop insurance for every single one of those acres, and the government would cover a portion of each acre,” Johnson continued. “That allows larger farmers to take on more risk, and it disadvantages small and midsize farmers. Because they aren’t farming as much [land], they don’t have access to that same level of government subsidy.”

The amount of funding the government gives to each farmer in their crop insurance subsidies should be limited.

“Right now, the federal government is paying the very largest farmers to get bigger at the expense of small and mid-size family farms,” Depew stated. “We don’t think the federal government should subsidize the expansion of the largest farms, because that has a detrimental effect on our rural communities. If they want to farm big, they can, but at some point, it ought to be on their dime, not on our dime.”

Conservation

“We support healthy, vibrant rural communities, including having a healthy environment to live in,” Johnson said. “That is helped with conservation.”

However, crop insurance subsidies currently have minimal conservation requirements.

“There’s been a fair amount of discussion in the farming communities we work in, about how some crop insurance agents won’t sell [crop insurance] to farmers if they’re practicing conservation activities like planting cover crops,” Johnson added. “The crop insurance companies just aren’t as familiar with those kinds of conservation. We’d like to get incentives to encourage conservation.”

Political climate

Duerr asked if the Center has concerns about the farm bill in the current political climate.

“If you look at history, the Center has worked on farm bills for many years,” Depew said. “We’ve worked in tough political climates before. We’ve won bipartisan support for conservation spending, and even bipartisan support for some policies to link conservation and crop insurance.”

He said the 2018 Farm Bill will be a hard fight, especially with conservation program budgets.

“Some of these issues don’t break along partisan political lines quite as much as other areas do,” Depew said.

Beginning farmers

The Center is currently working on a number of programs in the farm bill that will help address beginning farmer issues.

“The average age of farmers in the U.S. has been going up for the past several years, and right now the average age is 58 for primary operators,” Johnson said. “We also know that 1 percent of the U.S. population is farmers. So, it’s really important to think about how can we attract people back to farming and the challenges they may face.”

She said beginning farmers need help with access to land; access to credit; access to education and resources to learn management of the operation; and risk management.

USDA has a program called Conservation Reserve Program - Transition Incentives Program (CRP-TIP) that helps with access to land. The program branches out of CRP, a USDA program that pays farmers rental payments when they take land out of production for 10- or 15-year contracts. CRP-TIP will pay those landowners an additional two years of rental payments if they rent or sell their land to a beginning, socially-disadvantaged or veteran farmer.

Johnson wrote a report on CRP-TIP and found that matching a landowner and a new farmer is a challenge, particularly if the new farmer is not a family member.

“If they’re trying to move into a rural community where they don’t have a lot of connections, it can be hard to set up that kind of relationship with a landowner,” Johnson said. “It can be done. It just takes a lot of relationship building.”

In the last couple years, USDA set up a microloan program to help beginning farmers access credit. USDA already offers operating, land purchase and other loans to beginners; the microloan program was created to help smaller farmers get started.

“This microloan program has been really successful,” Johnson said. “Between 2013 and 2015, the level of funds loaned out through this program increased from $89 million to $162 million. There is a lot of demand.”

Duerr asked how schools and communities can encourage farming to youth.

“We are big fans of hands-on experiential learning,” Depew said. “There are opportunities in small towns for that to happen in an even more significant way than it does in larger towns. There are opportunities to set up programs for various vocational training. Farming could be one piece of that.”

He noted work the Center has done with farm to school and farm to institution, including assisting several schools in setting up greenhouses. The structures are right next to the schools and enhance existing agriculture programs.

Final thoughts

“We want to see crop insurance options available to everyone,” Johnson said. “Part of getting new people into farming is helping them stay financially solvent. And part of that is buying crop insurance.”

Depew encourages interested folks to visit the website and sign up for farm bill updates.

“It really doesn’t matter where you live,” he said. “We’re organizing nationwide. Particularly if you have a member of the Ag Committee in your state, we’d love to be in touch.”

We look forward to recording another podcast with Duerr later this month. Thank you to producer Michael Levin Epstein and assistant producer Susan Sempeles.

Listen to the podcast

You can download the episode any of these ways: