USDA encourages early registration for Farm Service Agency programs

For American dairy farmers, they will not get everything they want through the 2014 Farm Bill, but they should get everything they need, according to a Harford County dairy producer.

"We're saying that we didn't get everything we want, but we got everything we need and in politics, sometimes that's as good as it gets," farmer David Crowl said Thursday.

Crowl, a fifth-generation Harford County farmer, operates the 220-cow Garden Fence Farm in Street. He also sits on the National Dairy Promotion and Research Board, which reports to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the corporate board of directors for Dairy Farmers of America, a national "marketing cooperative" owned by about 180,000 dairy producers across the country, according to its website.

President Barack Obama signed the bill on Feb. 7, after it had been passed by Congress; it will fund initiatives such as insurance, conservation and national nutrition programs through 2018, according to the USDA's website.

About 80 percent of the designated $489 billion will go toward federal nutrition programs such as the National School Lunch Program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as the food stamp program, according to the USDA.

"About 18 percent of the cost of the total farm bill ever gets back to the farm," Crowl said.

Many programs are available through the farm bill that are designed to assist farmers, and officials with the USDA's Farm Service Agency are encouraging producers across the country to provide any changes to their records or "business structure" to a local FSA office before April 15, well in advance of the programs being implemented in early 2015, according to a news release from the agency.

"The [program] regulations haven't come out yet, so we can't sign anyone up for them, but we are just tying to get everyone's records up to date," said Dottie Mortimer, executive director of the FSA officers for Cecil and Harford counties.

She added: "The programs that are forthcoming, most of the farming community is going to want to sign up for."

Two programs, which are replacements for previous ones, are called Price Loss Coverage and Agriculture Risk Coverage, and assist farmers with covering discrepancies in prices of commodities covered under the program, from major crops such as corn, grains and soybeans to lesser-known crops such as chickpeas and sesame seeds, and if the revenue earned from a crop is less than what is guaranteed under the county or individual Agriculture Risk Coverage, according to an FSA fact sheet.

A new program, which Crowl said is needed by dairy farmers, is the Dairy Margin Protection Program, through which $4 of margin income, the "price of milk over feed," is guaranteed per 100 pounds of milk.

"We need a margin... at the end of the day, it's still a business and we have to operate in the black," Crowl said.

He noted feed is the largest cost for a dairy farmer, but noted farmers have additional operating expenses such as fuel and electricity, as well as their personal living expenses.

"That's the last thing," he said of living expenses. "Everybody gets paid before we do."

Crowl noted that "the U.S. food supply is the safest, most varied and the cheapest as a percentage of disposable income in the world," in part due to federal programs that have helped lower operating costs.

Bob Tibbs Jr., who raises about 60 beef cattle on Shadow Springs Farm near Level, said the 2014 Farm Bill pushes more farmers to obtain crop insurance, rather than direct payments to farmers for crop losses.

"Rather than have a taxpayer subsidy, you have to carry your own insurance," Tibbs said. "It's something that you have to pay for, whether you use it or not, and the farmer has a choice."

If a farmer loses his or her crop to a disaster such as a hurricane, he or she would be eligible for federal disaster assistance, but Tibbs stressed they must be insured.

He said farmers are covered for the value of the crop yield that they have purchased insurance coverage for, and they must take into account what it costs to produce that crop, such as fuel and seed.

"Whether you have a good season or a bad season, you know that you're covered to get your input costs back," Tibbs explained.

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