Flipping U.S. Farm Bill right side up will be better for Kansas, farmers and environment
In recent hearings on the 2023 farm bill, lawmakers in the U.S. House have discussed expanding crop insurance and trying to address the mounting challenges from drought, severe weather and climate change to the legislation. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Paul Johnson is an organic market gardener and a policy analyst and advocate for the Kansas Rural Center. Zack Pistora is president of KRC’s board of directors and longtime environmental lobbyist for the Kansas Chapter of Sierra Club.
Recently, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly affirmed a deep-rooted conviction about Kansas agriculture: “In Kansas, farming is a way of life and local Kansas farms are vital to our economy – they feed the nation and the world.”
That statement is no surprise to many and is backed by the latest data from the Economic Research Service of the USDA, which ranks Kansas 3rd among states for most acres of farmland and 6th overall in sales of crops and livestock. Kansas is also in the top 10 for exports of wheat, beef, soybeans, feed grains, corn and sorghum that primarily end up in Mexico, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China.
Lesser known is the steep cost that Kansans and Americans pay for an industrial agricultural system that’s largely geared toward using Midwestern lands to grow feeds for animals, raw ingredients for unhealthy processed foods and fuel for ethanol. Today’s use of the land is not prioritizing growing healthy, edible foods for local consumption, nor stimulating opportunity for the next generation of farmers and rural communities. Know that our biggest beneficiary of the land – the agriculture sector – (and not necessarily your average farmer, to be clear) is Kansas’ biggest user of water by far and arguably the biggest polluter of our water and soil ecosystems (via concentrated nutrients, pesticides and agricultural runoff).
While these criticisms surely sound harsh, these ill circumstances are more systemic and not individual or personal. The good news is that our farmers, while always heroes in food production, can also be our heroes for the sustainability of our state and planet. But the rejuvenation of American agriculture hinges on one single, major piece of legislation: the U.S. Farm Bill.
In Kansas, federal farm bills have by far the most significant impact on land use, cropping patterns, soil treatment, water use, nutrition and further consolidation of agriculture. Farm bills are written and passed every 4 to 6 years, and Congressional committee hearings are gearing up for the next Farm Bill in 2023.
Our current U.S. Farm Bill, which Congress passed in December 2018, allocated nearly $100 billion for farm-related subsidies and programs. Kansas receives $1 to $1.5 billion annually for farm payments, putting Kansas as seventh for farm payments in 2021. These tax dollars add up and don’t get distributed equitably.
According to farm payment watchdog the Environmental Working Group, from 1995 to 2020, Kansas farm subsidies totaled $24.6 billion, with more than 80% of that going to commodity payments and crop insurance ($13.3 billion for commodities, $6.3 billion for crop insurance, $2.02 billion for disaster relief, $3.04 billion for conservation). Of the $13.3 billion for commodity payments, 88% of the benefits went to 20% of 58,569 Kansas farms, leaving just 12% for the rest. Predictably, these commodity subsidies in Kansas have primarily gone to wheat, sorghum, corn and soybeans.
According to farm payment watchdog the Environmental Working Group, from 1995 to 2020, Kansas farm subsidies totaled $24.6 billion, with more than 80% of that going to commodity payments and crop insurance ($13.3 billion for commodities, $6.3 billion for crop insurance, $2.02 billion for disaster relief, $3.04 billion for conservation). Of the $13.3 billion for commodity payments, 88% of the benefits went to 20% of 58,569 Kansas farms, leaving just 12% for the rest.
– Paul Johnson and Zack Pistoria
There are additional environmental and health costs with our current farming and farm reward system that are perhaps even more problematic. Let us start with health. The USDA food plate is 50% fruits and vegetables, 30% grains (preferably whole grain) and 20% protein with a dairy side. Farm Bill food subsidies are quite different: 63% feed grains; 20% food grains; 15% sugar, starch, oil, alcohol; 2% nuts and legumes; and only 1% for fruits and vegetables. Kansas ranks 8th of the 50 states in adult obesity (35.3%), while one-third of Kansas children are either overweight or obese.
Overall Farm Bill spending is 80% nutrition programs (primarily food stamps – SNAP) and 20% farm programs. According to the USDA, in 2018 the national average for eligible recipients getting SNAP was 82% while in Kansas it was 69%, making Kansas the 3rd worst state for ensuring food assistance gets to those in need.
Ecosystem health also loses with the current subsidization of commodity crops. Absent conservation practices, farming cultivated cropland results in a loss of roughly 5 tons of topsoil per acre per year due to wind and water erosion. Beyond this inherent loss of farmers’ most valuable growing medium, property and critical habitat for soil microorganisms, this soil loss typically finds a way to enter our streams and reservoirs, causing significant sedimentation and compromising our drinking water supplies. We find barren crop fields contribute to larger runoff situations during heavy rain events. In contrast, conservation practices like cover crops, no-till and grassland retain soil moisture and allow water to slow and infiltrate landscapes.
With climate change upon us, extreme weather conditions such as droughts, extreme heat and wind, heavy rain and flooding, wildfires, and more, will likely mean increased destruction of our soil ecosystems, as well as more demand or compromising of our water supplies — not to mention making farming more challenging. The agriculture industry is perhaps the industry most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Kansas irrigators, who represent just a fraction of Kansas farmers (approximately 10% of acres and farms), use more than 80% of the state’s water. That’s more than what is used by all Kansas’ cities, towns and non-agricultural businesses combined.
Most of that water depletes the Ogallala aquifer for irrigating Kansas commodity crops in Western Kansas. As a result, many Kansas communities are looking at only decades of groundwater supply left. We know that the conservation of soil and water go hand-in-hand, which is why the Farm Bill needs to prioritize conservation much more.
Farm Bill conservation programs are key to improving soil health and lessening soil loss. The Conservation Reserve Program contracts are 10- to 15-year arrangements to put land in constant grass cover and prioritize the highest environmental benefit, such as buffer strips on creeks and streams. There is now an expansion of CRP Grasslands contracts in Kansas of 270,000 acres. (Kansas has 1.78 million acres in CRP). The Conservation Stewardship Program is directed to working farms to develop whole farm conservation and soil improvement systems. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program is geared to specific conservation improvements.
Unfortunately, CSP and EQIP are underfunded federally. In 2020, only 18% of eligible CSP applicants in Kansas were funded and just 23% of EQIP eligible applicants were . In 2020, CRP, CSP and EQIP in Kansas totaled $200 million, while the State Water Plan fund in Kansas was $20 million.
Fundamental change is truly needed for the 2023 Farm Bill by investing in more sustainable farming practices (cover crops, crop rotations, managed grazing) to improve soil health for future generations while encouraging more beginning farmers and halting greater consolidation of agriculture. The 2023 Farm Bill should establish a five-year phase-out of specific crop subsidies and highly subsidized crop insurance payments for these specific crops. In our free-market capitalist economy, the federal government should not prioritize these specific crops (wheat, corn, soybeans, cotton and rice).
Instead, Farm Bill conservation programs should be fully funded and serve as base income support for farmers to improve soil health through greater diversity in cropping choices and grazing opportunities. There should be some limits on conservation support payments to the largest farms and greater efforts to encourage beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. As this transition comes about, Kansas should develop a State Food and Farm Plan to capture 10-20% of the $8.2 billion spent annually on food in Kansas while addressing existing food deserts in rural and urban areas by encouraging a more resilient and dependable local food system.
A different Farm Bill with greater emphasis on conservation could upgrade our food and farm system. Our Kansas farmers, communities, ecosystems and the world will be better because of it.
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