2012 Farm Bill Should Hold The Thin Green Line

Minnesota has more at stake than most in 2012 farm bill.

Rural America has been abuzz lately about a term coined by retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark to describe the challenge of feeding more and more Americans with fewer and fewer farmers. His phrase, “hold the thin green line,” sums up what many of us have spent a lifetime trying to convey.

“If we cannot feed, fuel and clothe ourselves, then we cannot defend ourselves. If this one bright spot in our economy is choked off, then recession recovery will certainly stall,” Clark said.

Here in Minnesota, we have more at stake than most when it comes to holding the thin green line.

Almost half of the state’s land is devoted to food production, one-quarter of our residents are employed by agriculture, and we are national leaders in producing staple crops such as corn, wheat and sugar. So how does Minnesota build on this success story? It all starts in the halls of Congress with debate of the 2012 farm bill, and that debate is about to get under way.

Some lawmakers are already taking aim at agriculture. Some are pointing to federal budget deficits as an excuse to cut gaping holes in the farm safety net and leave Minnesota’s economy vulnerable to the whims of Mother Nature and the roller-coaster rides of current commodity markets.

Such attempts are as foolish as they are disingenuous, especially when you consider the current state of farm budgets. The sugar policy that underpins the state’s Red River Valley, for example, costs taxpayers $0. Some policy replacements that have been proposed in the past would cost $1.3 billion a year or more.

Meanwhile, the policies in place to help the state’s corn, soybean and wheat growers hedge risk continue to operate under budget and represent less than one-quarter of 1 percent of federal spending.

Then there’s arguably the most important tool to Minnesota farmers: crop insurance. Crop insurance was specifically designed to shield taxpayers from mega-payouts that could result from catastrophic situations such as commodity price collapses and weather disasters.

By helping farmers afford insurance policies that would otherwise be cost-prohibitive, the government is able to stretch tax dollars much further. The 2010 crop is a prime example – every dollar spent by the government yielded $20 worth of protection for farmers. And this divide is expected to grow in 2011.

If you doubt the need for crop insurance, just look at recent data from the National Weather Service, which shows that excessive snow in the Great Plains and Midwest may leave more of the state’s valuable crops under water than the 2009 record-setting floods.

Now is not the time to weaken crop insurance and put taxpayers – instead of private insurance companies – on the hook for picking up the pieces. If anything, discussions should be centered on ways to strengthen crop insurance and the rest of the safety net. After all, there’s far more at stake than farmers in the next farm bill.

Widner is chairman of the American Crystal Sugar Co. and grows sugar beets, wheat and soybeans in Stephen, Minn.
This article appeared in the Fargo Forum on April 24, 2011.