Arkansas Rice Farmer: Family Farmers Support Economy, Food Security

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ith a Farm Bill on the horizon, Congress is already hearing from policy wonks, think tank experts, and DC insiders about what they think legislation should say. But the most important voice in this conversation is the American farmer. So, we asked fourth-generation rice farmer Jennifer James to join us on the Groundwork podcast and provide her perspective on the challenges facing agriculture, especially the unique set of circumstances facing rice growers.

We all must eat, which means we all need American farmers. “Keeping rice farmers in the U.S. in business really simply comes down to food security,” Jennifer said.

Yet U.S. rice production is in jeopardy, as U.S. rice farmers have found themselves “in a strange situation with our prices staying flat and those input costs going crazy out of control.” Rice grows in flooded conditions, and meticulously managing its irrigation is both energy and labor intensive. As input costs rise, rice farmers have not seen a similar increase in the price they’re receiving for their rice.

“Our biggest peril really is price and really is being able to cover those input costs,” Jennifer explained.

The Price Loss Coverage (PLC) program in the Farm Bill serves as the primary safety net for U.S. rice farmers. The PLC program provides a backstop to farmers when prices for a covered crop fall below the reference price that is outlined in the Farm Bill. But it is no longer keeping pace with the economic conditions facing rice growers.

In her recent testimony before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Jennifer spoke to the need to adjust the PLC reference prices for rice crops, which were last updated in the 2014 Farm Bill:

Production costs have risen over the last decade notwithstanding low prices over most of those years, but farms have been able to stay on top with increases in productivity and supplemental assistance to address recent volatility. 2022 is a completely different story for rice, where net farm incomes are in the negative due to an unprecedented increase in the costs of fuel, fertilizer, crop protection, and other input costs. In the case of rice, this is all occurring without a corresponding increase in the price rice farmers earn at the farmgate.

U.S. rice producers are also facing challenges on the global stage, as foreign government-funded overproduction floods the world market, driving world rice prices far below U.S. farmers’ cost of production. India, for example, has exceeded its WTO-allowable support for rice farmers three years in a row.

“Being able to compete globally, in what we would like to say are free markets, are really not free markets at this time for rice, especially,” Jennifer said. “That’s another reason why we certainly need a strong Farm Bill to support us and keep us competitive.”

For Jennifer, preserving the future of rice farming means preserving a family operation that has farmed some of the same land for more than 100 years. Importantly, it also means protecting a critical economic driver in her small community.

“We rely on the rice farms to support our communities, and to provide jobs… [challenges on the farm] trickles down throughout our communities.”

Listen to the full episode of Groundwork by clicking here.