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JONESBORO — More flexibility and streamlined regulations are needed in programs provided under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, representatives of several groups said during a Senate field hearing in Jonesboro Friday.

It’s the second field hearing since the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry began work on a 2023 farm bill.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, chairwoman of the committee, hosted the first field haring in April at Michigan State University. Arkansas Sen. John Boozman, the committee’s ranking Republican member hosted the second hearing at the Fowler Center at Arkansas State University.

Rich Hillman, president of the Arkansas Farm Bureau, underscored the importance of good farm legislation, noting that agriculture remains the largest industry in the state.

“We all do our jobs across the state to feed hungry people with great pride,” Hillman said. “All of us that do that realize that our jobs are the most important known to mankind.”

Though hundreds of miles apart, Stabenow said farmers and their communities in Michigan share common issues with Arkansas.

“We’re working hard to put bipartisanship and civility at the very center of everything we do,” Stabenow said.

Boozman said his committee must evaluate if the programs in the current farm program are meeting the country’s needs.

“Are we empowering, encouraging and incentivizing our farmers to be more productive and more efficient?” Boozman asked. “Are we making the right investments in our rural infrastructure?”

Nathan Reed of Marianna, president of the American Cotton Producers, said a new farm bill has to make allowances for the surge of input costs, including a stronger crop insurance program to help manage the risks.

“An effective safety net for producers must contain two key components,’ Reed said. “First, a commodity policy that provides either price or revenue protection for prolonged periods of low prices in depressed market conditions. Secondly a strong and fully accessible suite of crop insurance products that producers can purchase and tailor to their risk management needs.”

He noted that recent disasters have been more extreme than the current programs anticipate.

Brad Doyle of Weiner, president of the American Soybean Association, noted soybeans are produced in nearly every state.

“It’s important to note that improving, protecting, enhancing, growing and building all require additional resources,” Boyle said. “As you prepare to write the new farm bill, we respectfully request that you seek additional funding resources from the Budget Committee to enable these and the priorities of others to be possible.”

Anne Marie Doramus, a member of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, said her agency and farmers work together on a number of conservation issues and help provide a $9.7 billion outdoor recreation industry for the state.

“The farm bill’s conservation programs represent the single largest investment in private land conservation,” Doramus said. “Its most critical function is to support our state’s thriving agricultural communities. However, there are substantial benefits to fish and wildlife habitat.”

Mark Morgan, a peach farmer from near Clarksville, said the crop insurance program doesn’t work well for specialty crop producers.

“We don’t ask for much but a better risk protection package through crop insurance is something we’d like to see,” Morgan said. Existing programs don’t fit the specific needs for his crops or those of tomato farmers in Arkansas, he said.

Jennifer James of Newport, representing USA Rice, said rice has been disproportionately impacted by the cost of production versus prices received. The Price Loss Coverage program is the best protection they have, but under today’s conditions, are no longer adequate, and she predicted rice acreage may drop by 27 percent.

She noted competing nations heavily subsidize their crops. She said increasing support for rice producers is a worthy investment.

“In the wake of the pandemic and now with global food shortages said to be imminent, Americans are realizing that food security is a national security issue,” James said. “It’s not just a clever slogan. It is a reality. We cannot afford to lose our domestic rice industry.”

John McAlpine, owner of a forestry business in Monticello, said the nation’s forests, most of which are privately owned, play a key role in fighting climate change and urged continued support of forestry programs.

Outside of crops, the farm bill is expected to play a crucial role in rural communities’ survival.

Elizabeth Bowles, CEO of Aristotle Unified Communications, said it’s not practical to focus exclusively on high-speed fiber to the home programs that can cost as much as $14,000 per home to implement in rural areas.

“The Bipartisan Infrastructure Jobs Act makes available once in a generation $65 billion for broadband and a lot of that money is going to go into rural America,” Bowles said. “But that program has initiated a fiber first, fiber only strategy, which means that the program will probably run out of money before every rural American is served.”

Bowles said the new farm bill should take a different approach.

“Fiber is very expensive and it takes a lot longer to deploy than other technologies,” Bowles said. “Rural communities do not have the luxury to wait years for broadband connectivity, and if the purpose of the farm bill broadband program is to assure that every farm and resident has access to broadband, then it’s critical that the broadband programs in the farm bill remain technology neutral.”

Buddy Hasten, CEO of the Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp., said cooperatives need access to incentives to invest in clean energy as they seek to replace their current base load capacity. Proposed legislation that would allow the nonprofits to refinance Rural Utility Service loans would free up about $100 million that could allow the co-ops to keep their rates relatively low, he said.

Plus, Hasten said the cooperatives are also deeply involved in helping bring broadband services to their members.

Hasten stressed the importance of “ensuring that these programs are flexible and streamlined and will allow electric cooperatives to deploy fiber resources as quickly and efficiently as possible,” Hasten said. He said current government programs are geared toward telecommunications companies, to the detriment of the co-ops, who already have much of the infrastructure in place to help provide the service.

Rhonda Sanders, CEO of the Arkansas Foodbank, said food insecurity in rural areas is a growing problem because of transportation costs and the dwindling number of grocery stores in rural communities.

Read the story in the Jonesboro Sun