Over the next five weeks, the Senate Committee on Agriculture will be holding four hearings on various aspects of the next farm bill. I’ll be focusing a series of blogs on the topics they will be covering to share some concerns and opportunities. 

First, and most importantly, we need a bill that is forward-leaning rather than rear-looking. All too often our farm bills are based primarily on past experience rather than future opportunities and challenges.   

It doesn’t take a crystal ball to see the future—it’s rolling towards us, with 7 billion souls to feed today and another 2 billion joining us on Planet Earth by 2050. That much is clear. So we need to ensure that farm policy we establish today takes the needs of a growing global population and a rising worldwide middle class in mind. 

We also know that today prices are strong for most agricultural commodities: meat, grains, fiber, fruits and vegetables. And this is true despite a weak national and global economy in many other sectors.   Regardless of income and irrespective of whether the economy is sluggish or booming, all people place a high priority on food. Everyone needs to eat. 

Despite the economic downturn, more people around the world are climbing into the middle class and seeking better diets. This ongoing middle class growth may be the single largest cause for optimism in farm country about commodity prices for the long term.  The natural increase in middle-class appetites throughout the developing world for more varied food will drive demand for basic as well as value-added grains, specialty crops and fibers.

So the question we need to ask today is this: Will the next farm bill assist American farmers and the entire food production system in preparing to meet international demand? If we need to increase production tomorrow, are we allocating sufficient research dollars today? Are we putting our marketing and promotion dollars into production and environmental research to support sustainable production needs over the coming years and decades?

We all know that under the next farm bill, spending will be lower. If spending is lower, then USDA should be smaller. The hard reality is that farmers spend more time at the farm equipment showroom, the livestock barn or the grain elevator than at the Farm Service Agency office each year. We don’t need FSA offices where the employees have no more work than the proverbial Maytag repair man. While we’re at it, we could downsize the USDA offices at the national and state levels as well. Retiring baby boomers will make it possible to do this in a common-sense manner.

This week specifically the Senate Committee will be looking at energy and rural development issues for the next farm bill. As they do, I believe it is important to draft a bill that ensures equity among renewable energy sources: wind, solar, geothermal, biogas, biomass, algae, biodiesel and ethanol. USDA’s energy programs shouldn’t be selecting winners and losers in the renewable arena. Further, we need to remember that a systems approach that combines food production, energy conservation and renewable energy generation will allow us to charge into the future. Finally, the most effective strategy for energy conservation is a systems approach that examines the entire food production chain from farm to final customer. Let’s be sure our energy programs embrace a systems approach.

I believe it’s time to stop putting money into infrastructure for the petroleum distribution system, which is already well capitalized. Instead, let’s use the underutilized conservation loan program to accelerate investment in energy conservation and renewable energy generation. I also hope that the Committee will make sure that environmental concerns are included in ranking lists for applications for rural development loans and grants.   In these tough budget times, Rural Development’s energy programs will be lucky to survive, let’s make sure they fund renewable projects that are viable, realistic and doable.  

When Rural Development is evaluating investments beyond energy, let’s focus in agribusiness, food handling and processing. We should be supporting the lifeblood of rural America and agricultural productivity. And we can make these investments through fewer programs—program consolidation can save money and make applications simpler for farmers and rural entrepreneurs. We should also insist that sign-ups for all programs occur during winter months so that construction can begin in the spring. RD’s grant and loan programs should be managed to provide entrepreneurs prompt, quick decisions on their applications.   All too often, job creation is held back simply by programmatic inaction.

Every farm bill offers a chance to increase opportunities for American farmers to become more productive while conserving resources and improving the environment. Let’s make sure we look to the future as we craft this bill.

About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems.