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VOL. 129 | NO. 44 | Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Fincher Outlines ‘Complicated’ Farm Bill Details

By Bill Dries

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The only active row-crop farmer in Congress has been on the road the last month talking particulars of a very complex farm bill with farmers not only in his West Tennessee district, which includes part of Memphis, but in five other states and other parts of Tennessee.

FINCHER

U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-Frog Jump, winds up the series of town hall meetings Friday, March 7, at the National Guard Armory in Alamo, Tenn.

The Memphis hearing Saturday at the Sheraton Memphis Downtown Hotel took advantage of the crowds at the nearby Memphis Cook Convention Center for the 62nd annual Mid-South Farm & Gin Show.

The show included more than 400 exhibitors from 40 states and a much larger crowd than the dozen farmers who walked over to the hotel for the town hall session.

It was about what Fincher expected. He said he understood the desire to look at new tractors and other farm machinery instead of a PowerPoint presentation on yields and percentages and payments per acre.

Those in the town hall were West Tennessee farmers, like Fincher, who is managing partner of Fincher Farms, a Frog Jump agribusiness that has been in the Fincher family for seven generations.

The farm bill ends subsidies and replaces them with a complex payment system through several programs, Fincher said.

“It’s very complicated,” was the first thing he told the group. “This is not what we had. But we think it may end up working for us. … This is not about farmers getting rich. It’s about having a product that works.”

The “product” is a trio of programs that farmers enroll in starting in July, although Fincher thinks the machinery for the programs and their selection probably won’t be ready until the fall for enrollment.

He likens it to crop insurance in its approach, but with many more options and using more current information on yields.

“We just haven’t been crop insurance people,” Fincher said of his family’s agribusiness. “I know some of my friends have. It just hasn’t worked for us in the past. It may work now because that’s what we have.”

He urged farmers to get prepared now to make the decisions. And that means wading into the complex yield formulas that involve not just past yields for a given farmer, but average yields by county and percentages of those yields.

“You are going to have to sit down and figure out what has been working best on your acres and your farm to make this thing work,” Fincher told the group. “It’s going to be all on you. … These programs are not great. They are just not. You may trigger a $40 or $50 an acre payment a couple of times. But it’s not going to be enough to save you.”

In a U.S. Department of Agriculture blog post last month, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said “tools” in the farm bill should help to “further slow and perhaps even reverse” the loss of farmland.

U.S. Census data cited by Vilsack shows the loss of farmland has “slowed significantly” since 2007.

“The (Census) results reinforce what we have known for many years: the farm population is aging,” Vilsack wrote. “While that is a concern, the data also show that the number of young farmers increased slightly and the number of minority farm and ranch principal operators increased dramatically, reflecting the changing face of America as a whole.”

Those new farmers will be called on to make the same educated guesses that are a part of being a farmer. But there is more at stake with the guesses.

“It is going to force farmers to have to get more engaged and to make better crops, better yields than they ever have in the past,” Fincher said after the Memphis meeting. “It is moving away from a farm subsidy program that there was not appetite for in most of the country to a market-based insurance product. People are going to have to produce. Farmers are going to have to get more engaged and pay closer attention to all of the aspects of it now.”

Fincher serves on the House Agriculture Committee and indicated that much of his discussions in Washington as the Farm Bill took shape were about where the political will and votes were in the House and Senate. In terms of the subsidies, Fincher said even Republicans in the majority-Democrat Senate were opposed to continuing that system.

“You got all you can get politically?” one of the farmers asked. Fincher indicated he had.

“There’s not any room for error anymore. When you’re dealing with Mother Nature and outside and all of the things we deal with and farmers deal with, that’s hard. It’s not like making one thing on the assembly line,” Fincher said. “The bottom line to this is a safe and sustainable food supply for the country. … This is not about farmers. It’s about products for the consumer.”

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