As a warm winter drew to a close with the warmest March on record, many farmers around the country were already in the fields and others are itching to get crops in the ground.
Each planting season begins with such promise. This one is no different. But agriculture is unpredictable. And in the months ahead, some of our nation’s producers will contend with droughts, floods, tornados, storms and other natural disasters before they can harvest their crops and bring them to market.
These are good times for American agriculture. Last year we set new records for farm income and agricultural exports. Farmers and ranchers are carrying less debt, and farm household income is rising.
Even in these good times, our farmers, ranchers and growers need a strong safety net. That begins with a crop insurance program that protects 264 million acres on about 500,000 farms.
Over the past 3 years, about two thirds of producers enrolled in crop insurance have used it at one point or another. USDA crop insurance has paid out more than $20 billion in indemnities to more than 340,000 farmers who lost crops due to natural disasters.
In the same three year period, USDA’s disaster assistance programs helped more than 250,000 farmers and ranchers suffering from severe drought and other challenges – providing payments worth more than $3.4 billion.
As members of Congress debate the next Farm, Food and Jobs Bill, a safety net that protects our farmers and ranchers must be a priority. It should reflect the diversity of American agriculture, working for operations of all types and sizes. It should be simple enough to understand. And it must be accountable and justifiable to all Americans – using resources wisely to provide assistance only when it is needed.
My hope is that Congress acts soon. While crop insurance remains central to the safety net, it is concerning that this year farmers are putting a crop in the ground without USDA’s other disaster assistance programs in place. SURE and the livestock disaster programs, which ended last year, can make a difference for folks struggling to stay on the farm.
That’s why Congress should act as soon as possible to pass a Farm Bill. American producers should know that they’ll have protection and assistance this year if they lose crops or livestock to natural disaster. They deserve to know the rules and what the playing field will look like in the years ahead.
Agriculture is a bright spot in the American economy and President Obama and I aim to keep it that way. We’ll work with Congress to help them pass a Farm Bill with a strong safety net. That’s how our farmers and ranchers will continue to provide our families a safe, affordable food supply and support the health and prosperity of this nation.
You can find the audio version of the Secretary’s Column here.