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Rep. Kat Cammack and House Agricultural Committee members listen to over 2.5 hours of input on the Farm Bill in Newberry

Photo credit: Amber Thibodaux, Alachua Chronicle

BY AMBER THIBODAUX

NEWBERRY, Fla. – Members of the bipartisan House Agriculture Committee hosted a Farm Bill Listening Session on Monday at the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension Office in Newberry, led by Congresswoman Kat Cammack from Florida’s Third Congressional District. The committee met with farmers, ranchers, conservationists, and foresters from all over the southeastern region to address their top priorities ahead of the 2023 Farm Bill, set for authorization by Congress later this year. In a packed conference room with over 200 attendees, the committee listened to nearly 50 speakers whose concerns ranged from foreign competition in agriculture, crop insurance, and rising production costs to nutrition programs and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) funding. 

Farm Bill provides a safety net for American farmers

The Farm Bill is a sweeping piece of legislation that contains 12 titles and includes provisions for food stamps, disaster aid, agricultural subsidies, and research. It’s revised and voted on every five years and provides a safety net for American farmers. 

Florida Farm Bureau President Jed Smith kicked off the session by addressing the rising costs farmers are facing in 2023 and asking for assurance of a “viable safety net” for farmers in the upcoming bill. He pointed out the high costs and risks of growing specialty crops and worried about younger generations who may not be willing to take those risks if safety nets aren’t in place in case of natural disasters. 

“If we are going to encourage younger generations to engage in production agriculture, we must support such programs to assist them and their lenders with managing such high costs,” Smith said.

Smith also mentioned an aging workforce, saying, “The average age of the U.S. farmer is 57 and a half years old… On my farm today there are three generations – my dad, myself, and my oldest son. My son has a strong desire to farm. Even with our heritage and economic stability, it is difficult to encourage borrowing capital and risking equity we do possess without sufficient assurance of the right risk management tools to mitigate that risk.”

Florida farmers and growers produce over 300 specialty crops, but due to Florida’s lack of seasonal or perishable protection for crops, those producers are faced with a multitude of risks and an uncertain future.

Photo credit: Amber Thibodaux, Alachua Chronicle

“If sold, my farm will be the 57th to close since 2017, leaving only 53 dairy farms in Florida.

Brittany Thurlow, a dairy farmer from Hardee County, was visibly emotional as she told the committee that due in part to significant losses sustained after Hurricane Ian, her family was in the “unbearable position” of potentially losing their farm, having listed it for sale 37 days ago. Thurlow said she had applied for aid and had qualified, but the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) was “sitting on the funds that are urgently needed,” and she still hadn’t received any money.

“If sold, my farm will be the 57th to close since 2017, leaving only 53 dairy farms in Florida. I’m a fifth-generation dairy farmer, and I want to be here to continue my family’s legacy of serving my fellow Floridians with fresh, local, and nutritious dairy products,” Thurlow said.  

Regulations put U.S. producers at a disadvantage

Other farmers were frustrated by the regulations that are levied on American farmers while countries like Mexico continue to import twice the amount of produce at much lower costs. Sam Watson, a vegetable grower from Georgia, addressed the “uneven playing field” in agriculture, leaving Georgia and other states, including Florida, at a severe disadvantage to foreign competitors.  

“Fueled by government investments and protected agriculture and wages that are a fraction of those mandated to U.S. producers, imports of Mexican fruits and vegetables have surged over 500 percent since 2001,” Watson told the committee. “Let me put this plainly – in many cases, Georgia farmers are forced to leave perfectly good fresh fruits and vegetables to rot in the fields because imports have driven prices to the point where I lose money by picking and packing produce for my customers.”

Cammack later explained that because Mexico doesn’t abide by the same regulatory standards as the U.S., “what we pay in an hour, they pay in a day.” This undercuts the U.S. markets significantly, along with the high costs of labor, fertilizer, and diesel fuel.

An increase in the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR) in Florida has also caused a disparity in production between the U.S. and Mexico. While Mexican farmers can pay their workers much lower wages, the AEWR for Florida’s specialty crop producers increased from $12.41 in 2022 to $14.33 in 2023. This, along with a lack of U.S. government subsidies that many Mexican farmers get from the Mexican government, leaves U.S. producers at a major disadvantage. 

The listening session wrapped up after two and a half hours, and time constraints left many voices unheard. The committee was gifted with a variety of local fresh fruits, including blueberries, strawberries, and homemade strawberry shortcake, all courtesy of various farmers and growers who were in attendance.

“I think you can see just by the turnout how significant this Farm Bill is”

Cammack said that hosting the one and only listening session for the Farm Bill in the entire state of Florida was “one of the most humbling and privileged moments that I have had in my career.” 

“I think you can see just by the turnout how significant this Farm Bill is, not just to the Gainesville community, not just to North Central Florida, but to the entire Sunshine State,” Cammack said. She mentioned the emotional testimony of Brittany Thurlow as “particularly hitting home.”

“You could hear it as her voice started cracking how emotionally jarring the experience has been, fighting this uphill battle where agriculture has become, really, a target, so the importance of this Farm Bill cannot be overstated. We have a huge responsibility in making sure that food security is national security.”

Both the House and Senate Agriculture Committees are expected to draft their own version of the 2023 Farm Bill later this year, which will then be combined into one bill and voted on. If the bill passes, it will be sent to the president, who will either sign or veto it. The current bill expires on September 30.

  • Look at all those piglets clambering to get their snouts in the trough. When is Len Cabrera going to do a feature on all the Alachua County residents living off the welfare of the marxist Farm Bill for their existence? It’s hard to imagine a piece of policy and legislation that’s more socialist than the US Farm Bill. Where’s the conservative outrage over it?!?! Crickets.

  • “Fueled by government investments and protected agriculture and wages that are a fraction of those mandated to U.S. producers, imports of Mexican fruits and vegetables have surged over 500 percent since 2001,” Watson told the committee.
    See…….we’re from the government….and we’re here to ‘help’ you.

  • Did ANY of the bubbas in the Stetsons declare that the most pressing farmer need is a new money losing government owned slaughterhouse in Newberry??

  • We don’t need a farm bill. Let the economy dictate prices. And the last farm bill helped millionaires like Pioneer Woman cookbook author. She got several million dollars for keeping a few wild burros on her ranch. As far as Mexican competition, look no further than NAFTA pushed by the first President Bush.

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