As we begin a new year, the state of the farm economy, uncertainty in key global markets for U.S. ag exports like Mexico and China, and drought in many parts of the country all represent challenges for farmers and related industries. Looming gridlock in Washington could add to those challenges.
Meanwhile, large portions of the country are currently experiencing drought conditions. The irrigation industry has a tremendous opportunity to be front and center as part of the solution. Perhaps nothing poses more of an opportunity to do this than the writing of the next farm bill. The current five-year legislation that sets federal agriculture, conservation and nutrition policies and programs is set to expire at the end of September, requiring action by Congress this year to enact new legislation.
As Congress attempts to draft a new farm bill this year, it is important to keep in mind that more than half of U.S. crop sales come from irrigated farm operations, even though only 15% of the nation’s total farmland is irrigated. Besides boosting farm productivity and profitability, irrigation is critical infrastructure that helps improve global food security, ensure national security, reduce producer risk, promote the economic vitality of rural America and generate value for many related industries.
With the House Freedom Caucus, who have long been opponents to the farm bill, wielding significant influence in a split Congress following the midterms, getting a farm bill across the line will likely be even more difficult.
Voluntary, incentive-based conservation programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program are integral to promoting producer adoption of efficient irrigation. The Irrigation Association is advocating for additional investments in these programs, especially EQIP, as well as for programmatic changes that would help increase the number of farmers who could use these programs for irrigation projects, in addition to addressing some of the bureaucratic red tape producers currently encounter.
In addition to recommended improvements to farm bill conservation programs, the IA is working to enhance the education, research and technical assistance programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This includes increased investments in research, education and technical resources for farmers in order to facilitate increased efficiency, resource conservation and stewardship. To maximize conservation gains, USDA programs should recognize the need for producer support and training that continues beyond launch and initial installation.
Finally, the next farm bill needs to focus on closing the digital divide and protecting critical infrastructure from 21st century threats. New irrigation efficiency tools increasingly depend on access to stable, dependable and robust internet. Investments to close the digital divide in rural America are vital to food and water security and to ensuring farmers have the tools they need to effectively address water resource management and conservation challenges. As farmers increasingly rely on precision agriculture tools, it is important that we ensure cybersecurity risks to the food and agriculture system are assessed and that we have the practical tools available to address these risks.
The opportunities to address complex challenges that growers and producers face exist, but progress is likely to be impeded by the gridlock looming in Washington.
The farm bill traditionally draws support from across the political spectrum with urban Democrats supporting programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and rural Republicans supporting farm safety net programs. Increasingly, though, bipartisan legislation generally and farm bills specifically have become much more difficult in recent years. With the House Freedom Caucus, who have long been opponents to the farm bill, wielding significant influence in a split Congress following the midterms, getting a farm bill across the line will likely be even more difficult.