Conservation,  General

Our Farm Safety Net is Not “One Size Fits All”

Did you know that Ohio is home to 76,009 farms and 731 organic farms? Even though we are all consumers of food, its production is even more prominent here in Ohio. One might think that the needs of farmers who are doing vital work by feeding their communities are prioritized. However, this is not always the case.  

Organic grain and dairy producers, vegetable farmers, small meat producers, small and mid-size producers, local food advocates, and many more remain underrepresented in mainstream government, academic, and industry spaces. Instead, agriculture voices are largely dominated by policy experts, researchers, and educators. It is important to get all perspectives, but having farmers at the center of our work is critically important to achieve a farming system that is sustainable for all.  

Bringing Farmers to the Table

While we face unprecedented times of climate issues, world conflicts, and inflation, we need to look to the farmers in our area. It is important to hear about what they are noticing and what they need. The farmers in OEFFA’s network are dedicated to providing for their families, feeding their neighbors, and being stewards of the land. This holistic thinking is how we can move forward with supporting rural and urban farming networks. 

The farm bill is a huge sum of money and we have been told over and over that there is no new money in the next one. Therefore, looking at where the money is going already is very important. From 2024 to 2034, nutrition funding is expected to amount to 79.1% of farm bill funding and nearly 13% will be devoted to commodity-related programs and crop insurance. When we look at previous numbers from the USDA (2019-2023), commodity and crop insurance programs made up 16.2% of the funding while everything else (excluding nutrition) fit in 7.6%.  

Between 2025-2034, crop insurance and commodity programs are expected to receive $186 billion. But why do these two farm bill titles receive so much funding, and where exactly is it going?

Farm Safety Net

The so-called “Farm Safety Net” is built from the federal crop insurance, commodity, and disaster assistance programs. The federal government administers these policies to mitigate the consequences of adverse market and growing conditions. It has been shown that the current farm safety net largely benefits bigger, higher-income farms and even private companies. When we consider this in dollar amounts, we are talking about $142 billion spent from 2017 to 2022 on farm safety net programs.  

Meanwhile, most farmers do not rely on these subsidy programs. Only 30% of farmers grow commodity crops that are eligible for subsidies and 80% of farmers do not participate in our government-subsidized crop insurance program at all. 

These record levels of payments are supporting a lot of big farmers and while that works for them, what about the farmers we mentioned earlier? What about the farmers who are focused on feeding their communities and participating in conservation practices?  

So, What’s Going On?

Well, on the Hill there are a lot of conversations related to reference price increases. Reference prices are a part of commodity programs that mandate minimum crop prices. If a farmer enrolled in this program receives a lower price than that reference price, they can receive income support through the government. These proposed across-the-board price increases will have a major impact on all farm bill funding. To break it down some more: 

  • Increasing farm subsidies by increasing price guarantees will benefit fewer than 6,000 farmers.  
  • Only 30% of farmers grow covered commodities eligible for subsidies, and just 1.3% of farmers grow peanuts, rice, and cotton (in predominantly Southern states), which are crops that would benefit most from reference price increases.  

This is unequal access! Here’s the real discourse though: With no new funding for this farm bill cycle, where would money for increased reference prices come from? Conservation programs! Specifically, money would be pulled from the major influx of Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) funding that has supported many farmers in our network to get the grants they need to establish climate-smart practices on their farms.  

Last year I applied for an EQIP grant, I specifically needed help with high tunnels. I have been struggling as a beginning farmer not having one to be able to store and start crops. This also supported some soil erosion rehabilitation work. Initially, I got denied funding even though I checked a lot of boxes. Late in the summer (2023) I was able to get funding just because of a kick of IRA funding coming through. I wouldn’t have gotten my grant approved without the IRA funding. Don’t take away the funding from the NRCS.

Henry Peller, produce farmer in Roseville, Ohio

A Safety Net for All Farmers

We need to reframe how these farm safety net programs are looked at. If some programs work for some people, they should continue to do so. However, they should be accessible to all other farmers. Reforms in subsidy programs could level the playing field, save money, and reduce dependence on these programs by instilling conservation practices that boost farm resilience.  

“We’ve never used crop insurance… It seems like on our scale, it’s probably more paperwork than it’s really worth the payout. It just felt like a program that wasn’t built for farms like us… On our farm, the case is really that diversification is an insurance policy.”

Sasha Miller, Purplebrown Farmstead

Many farmers in our network say they use diversification of crops to protect their incomes. Some also rely on receiving those climate-focused dollars to establish practices on their farm that help to mitigate drainage, capture water, and extend their growing season so that they can more reliably produce each year and reduce their risk of losing crops.  

Learn More

We are so thankful for our friends at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition who recently released Unsustainable: State of the Farm Safety Net 2024, a report that directly looks into these numbers and offers recommendations for remediating these programs through the next farm bill. Through subsidy reforms to level the playing field, investing in climate funding to reduce dependence on subsidies, and most importantly uplifting farmer stories and diverse needs, we can achieve a farm safety net that is not “one size fits all.”  

Sustainable food producers and advocates and the urban and rural communities they serve should be prioritized by those in power. The work of our policy team is to specifically combat mainstream agriculture narratives. By developing relationships with government agencies and providing opportunities for farmers to voice their needs and concerns, we get closer to the farming system we need. Our team is here as a resource as those who communicate with farmers every day. We want to build relationships with those in power to uplift the voices of farming communities on the ground.