Agriculture groups must build a broader base of support for farm programs by strengthening relationships with nutrition advocates, environmental groups and minority farmers, a trio of farm policy veterans told leaders of the National Corn Growers Association on Thursday.

"You’ve got to build the relationships with people who care about food stamps, who care about conservation,” said former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D. “You can’t expect to get a farm bill by just being who you are in production agriculture.”

Heitkamp — who was part of a panel discussion with former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman and former Farm Service Agency Administrator Richard Fordyce — also warned farmers against fighting efforts to provide debt relief to minority farmers.

“It's time to kind of step back and say, I may not agree with that as a matter of policy, but these are constituency groups that can be enormously valuable to build a broader coalition,” Heitkamp said.

A series of successful lawsuits filed by white farmers and in one case, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, forced USDA to shut down a debt forgiveness program authorized by the American Relief Plan in 2021.

As for concern such programs are unfair to producers who don't benefit, Heitkamp said "there is tons of inequity ... in government spending."

Fordyce, who oversaw the implementation of the 2018 farm bill during the Trump administration, said concerns about climate change offer the chance for farmers to build support for farm bill programs by showing how agricultural practices can reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“We have an opportunity to tell really good stories about the things we're doing on our farms that are promoting climate-smart agriculture,” said Fordyce.

“Agriculture can truly be the folks on the white horse. … The things that we've been doing for, in some cases, decades, literally fall under that description of climate-smart ag.”

Glickman, a former Democratic congressman from Kansas who served as the nation's top ag official during the Clinton administration, stressed the political interdependence of nutrition and farm programs. Keeping them together traditionally has ensured both urban and rural support for farm bills.

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“You’re not sure what tail is wagging which dog in this situation, but they’re part of the same animal,” Glickman said. Without farm programs in the same legislation, nutrition spending “would have much less political support,” he said.

NCGA held its summer Corn Congress this week in Washington, where farmers debated policy and met with lawmakers and staff. 

The House’s Republican Study Committee, of which a majority of GOP House members are members, recently proposed an alternative budget that calls for separate nutrition programs for the farm bill and slashing spending on agriculture and conservation programs.

Heitkamp said nutrition programs appeal to House members who otherwise don’t have an interest in farm spending.

“Not every congressional district has a farm, but they do have people who need food security assistance,” she said.

Heitkamp, Glickman and Fordyce all emphasized the importance of the federal crop insurance program to growers.

“I think we’re going to see volatility over the next several years that exceeds what we’ve seen in the past,”  Glickman said. “Crop insurance and risk management programs are going to be even more important than they’ve been before.”

Fordyce said it was important for USDA to have the flexibility to modify insurance products to address farmers' needs. He cited as an example premium reductions for use of cover crops and provisions that would allow soil biologicals to substitute for synthetic fertilizer.

Heitkamp said farm groups should be wary of attempts to put environmental restrictions on crop insurance, such as conditioning the coverage on conservation tillage practices.

“We need to start from a base of doing no harm” to the program, she said. “What we have right now is working. It is providing food security, not just for us, but for the rest of the world. And it absolutely is an essential safety net at a time of high input prices.”

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