Editor’s Note: Agri-Pulse and The Chicago Council on Global Affairs are teaming up to host a monthly column to explore how the U.S. agriculture and food sector can maintain its competitive edge and advance food security in an increasingly integrated and dynamic world.

In California, farmers are again faced with drought.  On the east coast farmers have been struggling with incessant rain and flooding, hurting yields.  For many commodities, market prices have been dismal and with years of declining farm income, many older farmers are calling it quits and walking away.  As they leave, they take with them years of valuable knowledge and experience, and in many cases there is no new generation to carry on the risky endeavor.  The statistics now say that less than one percent of the US population makes a living from farming or ranching. How will farmers survive today and in the years ahead?

In the 2014 Farm Bill, farm income was almost double what it is today.  How many hard working citizens take a fifty percent cut in income and continue on hoping that things will get better?  Most of the challenges for farmers are not new, but they are compounded, straining the viability of farming as a business for farmers of all sizes and in all parts of the world. How to consistently feed a nation and a growing global population is something we need to address now.

The Farm Bill continues to be that critically important investment that our Federal government makes in its desire to maintain a predictable and affordable food supply for this nation.  This month, the House and the Senate will once again work to reconcile the House and Senate versions, with the goal of having a new Farm Bill in place when the Agricultural Act of 2014 expires on October 1. While some 99 percent of Americans might understand and appreciate why farmers would strongly support vital risk management tools like crop insurance and other safety net programs, the majority of citizens who enjoy unprecedented choices for what they eat everyday may want to pay close attention to the long-term investments in Agricultural Research that help to ensure that same predictable cornucopia of food in the future.

Over the last 130 years, public funding of Agricultural Research has contributed significantly to the emergence of the U.S. agricultural endeavor as one of the most technologically advanced and economically competitive in the world.   In the span of a few generations, we have learned to grow more food on less land with more efficient inputs than at any time in history.  This has also resulted in increased US agricultural exports to new markets, helping farmers earn enough to stay in business. How a nation sustains that kind of progress depends on how we continue to invest in agricultural research.      

Agricultural research is also a global good that can help smallholders in developing countries - which do not compete with farmers like me, to increase their yields and incomes. As we’ve seen in Asia, economic and agricultural growth among developing countries creates new trading partners, who buy higher value products from the US. Most importantly, research can help them control pests and diseases in their backyards, helping them become more food secure while decreasing the likelihood of pests and diseases coming to our shores.

Agricultural productivity and profitability requires constant on farm improvements in the face of significant challenges.  Publicly funded research and extension that delivers new tools, techniques and resource strategies has helped multi-generational family farms like ours respond to difficult times. Public research will develop better climate smart water management and seed technology to help farmers grow in extreme weather. Investments in innovation can increase yields, and better mechanization technology can reduce labor costs. 

However, public agriculture research funding in the US has been declining, and in recent decades, has stagnated as new threats and stresses are affecting our global food supply. If the US wants to maintain domestic food security, build new export markets and feed a growing population, its farmers need to stay in business.  They need new thinking, resources and innovation into the next decade to meet these challenges. 

Fortunately, the leadership of the Senate Agriculture Committee has proposed creative funding in agriculture research that would help ensure American farmers maintain our competitiveness into the future.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the Senate Farm Bill provides $860 million in mandatory funding for agricultural research over the next five years.  This total includes a new $200 million tranche for the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR).  The Foundation is a non-profit organization authorized in the 2014 Farm Bill to support the research mission of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) by funding research projects with non-federal partners such as agribusinesses, commodity groups, academia and foundations. Most importantly, the Foundation is taking a ‘farmer-up’ approach, with farmers engaged as part of the Board, advisory councils, peer reviews and research projects to ensure precious investments meet farmer needs and will be adopted. At a time when our government is asking us to rely less on federal dollars, FFAR has leveraged more private sector dollars than they have put in for some very promising research efforts, such as the Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency project at the University of Illinois, which examines how to improve  photosynthesis in crops such as soybeans and cassava-a staple in Africa. As farmers, we think FFAR, which stimulates nearly $1.3 in private funding for every dollar taxpayers put in as part of their 1:1 match requirements is a model Congress should continue to support.

In addition, farmers would like to laud Senate’s additional $400 million for research on specialty crops, $200 million for organic research and extension, and $8 million for biomass research and development--all continuations of existing Farm Bill research initiatives, to ensure that public research meets our increasing demand for food. 

Finally, the Senate is proposing the Agriculture Advanced Research and Development Authority, or AGARDA, a pilot that would help producers overcome long-term and high risk challenges, including addressing needs in engineering, mechanization, or technology improvement, as well as emerging threats from plant or animal disease.

We encourage our leadership to support these timely investments in agricultural research programs.  The final version of the Farm Bill must ensure that our family farms can meet the demands of the future and maintain a leadership role in feeding America and the world.

About the Author: A.G. Kawamura is third generation fruit and vegetable grower and shipper from Orange County. He is the former Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture (2003-2010). He is co-chair of Solutions From the Land, a non-profit organization that collaborates with farmers, ranchers, foresters and stakeholders to implement climate smart land management practices and strategies.