MILLBROOK, Ala. — Dozens of farmers from across Central Alabama attended a public forum Wednesday to voice their concerns and needs to Sen. Tommy Tuberville, who as a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee is helping craft the $1.5 trillion Farm Bill.
Passed every five years, the Farm Bill is a sweeping legislative package set for renewal this year and includes things like farming subsidies, crop insurance and food security programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
The event was one of four listening sessions hosted by Alabama Agriculture and Industries Commissioner Rick Pate to allow Tuberville and his legislative assistant Emma Johnston to hear feedback from producers across the state.
Issues related to labor shortages, farming subsidies and pesticide bans dominated the room.
“We’re here to listen to your problems. The Farm Bill will hopefully be finished in the year coming up,” Tuberville said.
“It runs out of money in September, but you know how we do government, we just keep printing it. We’re dead broke as a country, $32 trillion in debt, (and) we’ve got to find a way to start cutting money, but it is not going to happen in the Farm Bill.”
Richard Edgar, a sixth-generation farmer from Elmore County, asked that Tuberville fight for stronger farm safety nets – federal risk protection programs for crops – to be included in the Farm Bill.
“I’ve been farming for 40 years, and we see the economy, the regulations, and that’s why we need a safety net… our current safety net, the holes in it are so big that we fall through,” Edgar said.
Edgar said that when he began farming in the early 1980s, interest rates were at around 18%. While difficult, Edgar said that the recent inflation-driven increase in farming costs, coupled with interest rates nearly doubling from 4.5% to 8.75% between 2022 and 2023 “hurt more than that did in the early 1980s.”
“Our current reference prices, our current programs are so outdated that they are not safety nets anymore,” Edgar said.” We really need an update to come back to reality.”
Another topic raised was labor shortages, with farmers across the country increasingly relying on foreign labor through the use of the federal H-2A Visa Program. In 2005, just under 32,000 H-2A Visas were issued for foreign agriculture workers; in 2022, that number soared to more than 298,000.
“Labor’s not just an ag problem, labor’s just a problem; you can go to Choctaw County with good solid jobs that pay lots of money, and they can’t get people down there,” Pate said in response to comments about labor shortages.
“This is a quote I heard at one of those H-2A programs: foreigners are going to pick our food, (and) we have to decide, are they going to pick it in our country, or are they going to pick it in theirs? I think most of us would agree that we would rather them pick it in ours.”
Russell Wood, executive director of the Alabama Nursery and Landscape Association, said that labor shortages were an issue for his organization as well.
“Because everybody’s having a hard time finding labor, we need automation and mechanization where we can,” he said.
Another issue raised during the forum was an effort by Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., who also sits on the Senate Agriculture Committee, to ban certain pesticides.
“His politics and his policies are a little dangerous when it comes to his language in the Protect America’s Children from Toxic Pesticides Act,” said Steven Farrington, a former citrus farmer and current sales representative for Gowan Company.
“It is our understanding that no part of that language should be included in the Farm Bill because it plans to take away valuable tools that our growers, our farmers use to grow the crops. It also subjugates the EPA to decisions of the European Union and Canada, and I don’t think we want to defer the regulatory process to those agencies.”
Johnston, Tuberville’s legislative assistant, assured Farrington that the senator would continue to fight against such proposals.
A lot of the struggles farmers are subject to today, Tuberville argued, were a result of trade policies like NAFTA that reduced and eliminated barriers to trade such as tariffs, which are taxes on imported goods often implemented to encourage domestic manufacturing and job creation.
A study from the Economic Policy Institute found a strong correlation between the rise in unrestricted trade with less wealthy countries and a decline in American wages, with companies drawn to foreign markets for cheap labor, suppressing both American job creation and wages.
“The big thing about manufacturing is NAFTA didn’t just hurt manufacturing, it hurt everybody around it, put people out of work and put farmers at a disadvantage,” Tuberville told Alabama Daily News.
“In North Alabama, they used to be the sock capital of the world, and it all left after NAFTA was passed during the Clinton administration. We did an injustice to the American people when we moved manufacturing out because it took so many good jobs, so many opportunities to make a great living.”
The Farm Bill will continue to be worked on in the Senate Agriculture Committee, and is expected to be complete sometime in 2024, according to Tuberville.