Leaders of the Senate Agriculture Committee heard from Michigan producers who represent a broad range of commodities, scale and farming practices as the panel on Friday formally started hearings on the next farm bill.

The next farm bill, which Congress is due to write in 2023, “must address the economic security of our farmers, families, and rural communities by supporting a more resilient and sustainable food supply chain,” said committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, who held the hearing at Michigan State University, her alma mater.

“We can do more to improve competition and expand opportunities for small, midsized and local producers that grow things at home to prevent shortages and reduce cost spikes when a crisis does occur.”

The farmers and other witnesses offered few in the way of specific suggestions, reflecting the fact that farm groups have been holding off on developing specific policy proposals until this summer, at the earliest.

Jake Isley, a Blissfield, Michigan, grower representing the Michigan Soybean Association, told Stabenow and the committee's top Republican, John Boozman of Arkansas, that the two main commodity support programs, Agriculture Risk Coverage and Price Loss Coverage, “did little to help” farmers when prices fell at the height of the trade war with China in 2018.

“In the next farm bill, we ask for your help in improving the farm safety net programs for soybean growers and also for developing markets globally,” Isley said.

The American Soybean Association has taken the position that the PLC reference price for soybeans — now $8.40 per bushel — needs to be increased, but hasn’t recommended a new level.

Allyson Maxwell, a sugar and corn producer from Beaverton, Michigan, suggested Congress consider raising sugar loan rates, which serve as a floor for domestic prices.

“The loan rate for refined beet sugar has not keep up with inflation nor the steeply rising costs of production,” she said. “As such, we would support looking at how the farm safety net could better match actual operating costs for producers.”

Several producers also recommended making it easier for producers to get loans from the Farm Service Agency.

Juliette King McAvoy, vice president of sales and marketing for King Orchards at Central Lake, Michigan, said the $600,000 cap on direct farm ownership loans is insufficient given the value of land in her area.

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“I could see $1.5 million being a necessary amount to get started in a fruit-growing region like mine,” she said.

Isley suggested tying USDA loan limits to acreage to better reflect market conditions.

McAvoy also complained that existing requirements for U.S.-grown products in federal programs are too weak. “I believe consumers want to purchase U.S.-grown (food) and support American farmers. However, lack of transparency on the label makes it nearly impossible to know where the products are grown."

Dairy policy has been a major concern in recent farm bills, but milk producer Ashley Kennedy of Bad Axe, Michigan, called the existing Dairy Margin Coverage program "a major improvement" over its predecessor. She said the federal milk pricing formula for milk needs revision, but she acknowledged the industry has yet to agree on what changes should be made, if any.  "We know that in order  to improve the process we must work together to reach consensus," she said. 

Bird flu is a concern that needs to be addressed in the next farm bill as well, according to Joe Sullivan, director of pullet operations for a major Michigan egg producer, Saranac-based Herbruck's Poultry Ranch Inc.

He told the committee that USDA needs to do more to stamp out outbreaks of low-pathogenic avian influenza before those viruses mutate into the highly pathogenic versions that devastated the poultry industry in 2015 and have caused significant damage again this year.

He said USDA should be required to start indemnifying egg producers who are affected by the low-pathogenic viruses. Those outbreaks “need to be sampled out quickly before mutation occurs,” he told the senators.

The next hearing will be held in Boozman's home state of Arkansas. No date has been announced. 

"We have an opportunity in this farm bill to ensure we have in place the tools necessary to make American agriculture the trusted supplier for global markets," Boozman said Friday. 

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