Texas cotton farmers push for increased government insurance coverage

LBT Jack Wolf

Austin, Texas - On the precipice of yet another arid and challenging growing cycle, agrarians inhabiting the High Plains are voicing their appeals, calling on local and national legislators to bolster their financial defenses amid escalating uncertainties.

In both the Texan capital of Austin and the nation's power hub, Washington, D.C., cultivators from the expansive 41-county High Plains domain - encompassing Lubbock, amongst other municipalities - are articulating their growing concerns to lawmakers, citing unpredictable weather patterns and mercurial markets as relentless stressors on their enterprise.

They anticipate that the Texas Legislature will wisely allocate resources from the American Rescue Plan Act to furnish a one-time fiscal injection, hoping it will materialize by the closing stages of the legislative convocation this month. Further to that, they are fervently advocating for Congress to amplify disaster assistance through indispensable legislation colloquially known as the Farm Bill.

Farmers nationwide are grappling with an ever-expanding roster of threats to their sustenance, with climate-induced catastrophes standing as an alarming chief among them. In the High Plains of Texas, the drought of the preceding year imposed a staggering toll of over $2 billion on cotton producers. Concurrently, an inflated cost of living is depleting farmers' reserves, exacerbating the burden as expenses associated with essential supplies such as fertilizer, machinery, and seeds relentlessly rise.

As an iconic staple, cotton stands tall in the Texas agricultural panorama, with a resounding 56% of the country's cotton acreage flourishing within the confines of the Lone Star State. The High Plains region, specifically, contributes an impressive 30% of the nation's cotton and cottonseed. Despite this, the relentless barrage of financial adversities is fostering growing apprehension among producers, causing them to question the sustainability of their cotton-growing operations.

In testament to this, Shawn Holladay, a proud scion of a four-generation cotton farming lineage in Lamesa, addressed Washington’s House Committee on Agriculture. He conceded that while the 2018 Farm Bill has brought valuable support to the agricultural sector, there is a compelling need to reassess and refine its parameters to cater more effectively to the evolving needs of the industry.

“Additional funding is necessary to address challenges, both on the farm and throughout the supply chain,” said Holladay, who is chair of the National Cotton Council.

Navigating the labyrinth of US agricultural policy, we find ourselves confronted by the gargantuan legislative package known as the Farm Bill, a blueprint outlining the operational procedures for a multitude of food and agricultural programs. These include, but are not limited to, federal crop insurance, along with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), colloquially known as food stamps. Traditionally, the Farm Bill undergoes an overhaul every half-decade, with the 2018 iteration totaling a fiscal outlay of $428 billion.

Yet, the impending iteration of the Farm Bill is on track to be an unprecedented fiscal titan, possibly becoming the first trillion-dollar farm bill in the nation's history. The projected expenditure for this legislative juggernaut is a staggering $1.51 trillion, where SNAP is anticipated to consume the lion's share of the pie at over 81%.

For advocates championing the agricultural cause, the forthcoming bill presents an opportunity to ameliorate the structure of ad hoc disaster assistance, a temporary program conceived as a financial life preserver for agricultural establishments besieged by calamitous years.

Nonetheless, the ad hoc program lacks the assurance of permanency, necessitating the approval of Congress for each allocation of funds, with over $15 billion being authorized since 2018. This conditionality places farmers in a precarious position, requiring them to petition for assistance with each disaster, bereft of any guarantee for aid or for the quantum of relief they necessitate.

Focusing the spotlight on Texas, David Gibson, the esteemed chair of the Texas Agriculture Council, shoulders the responsibility of cultivating corn in Lubbock, a crop that bore the brunt of adversity last year, plummeting to its lowest yield since 2011.

Gibson underscores another impediment in the current framework, wherein ad hoc assistance is only accessible post facto, after the farms have been subjected to debilitating adversity. Following a triennium of escalating supply costs, volatile markets, and climatic upheavals battering the farming landscape, it appears increasingly prudent to transition from a reactionary stance to a proactive approach.

According to Gibson, establishing the disaster assistance as a permanent lifeline, rather than a contingent safety net, would be a more effective mechanism to counter these challenges, forsaking the futile wait-and-see strategy.

“There’s not a real provision in the Farm Bill, as of today, to keep growers in business,” said Gibson, who is also executive director of Texas Corn Producers. “Not make money, but just keep them in business.”

During Holladay’s testimony in Congress, he said his wife and daughter were working on the farms while he was away. Holladay said ad hoc assistance helps but isn’t reliable enough for how crucial it is.

“We needed it and we’re grateful to have it, but it wasn’t a risk-management tool,” Holladay testified. “We need something we can bank on that is predictable and can be leaned on in case problems arise, not after the fact.”

The plight of Holladay was not an isolated incident last year. A multitude of farmers in the High Plains grappled with parched, fissured terrain, leading cotton cultivators to forsake over 72% of their sown acreage, as reported by the charitable entity, Plains Cotton Growers.

The organization's Chief Executive, Kody Bessent, conceded that the previous year posed one of the most brutal cultivation seasons in living memory for the cotton sector. He expressed a keen desire for enhancements to be made to crop insurance—a crucial element of the Farm Bill, which has acted as a lifeline, enabling numerous farmers to sustain their operations.

“That way, we don’t have to continuously rely upon the amount of ad hoc assistance like we’ve seen in the last three years,” Bessent said.

In a bid to safeguard the livelihoods of regional cotton producers, a distinguished nonprofit entity has turned to the echelons of state legislation, voicing anxieties that have been simmering within the cotton industry. Spearheading this initiative is Steve Bessent, among other prominent agricultural figureheads, who are lobbying diligently for the sanction of a singular disaster relief grant by the Texas Legislature. This proposition has been put forth by State Sen. Charles Perry, a committed Republican from Lubbock.

The grant under consideration proposes the allocation of funds earmarked for COVID-19 relief. The notion has garnered the support of numerous agricultural cohorts, representing a broad spectrum of 56 counties in the sprawling state of Texas. Presently, negotiators from both the House and Senate are diligently weighing the grant's merits. Their goal: to reach an agreeable budget bill compromise that will eventually make its way onto the legislative floor for a comprehensive vote, anticipated to occur as soon as next week.

Statistical data compiled by the American Farm Bureau Federation paints a grim portrait of the state's agricultural woes. Last year, Texas shouldered a staggering $6.4 billion in losses attributed to crop devastation instigated by extreme weather events, catapulting it to the unfortunate position of the state suffering the most significant damage nationwide. The cotton industry bore the brunt of this devastation, recording approximately $2.9 billion in losses.

In a compelling missive to the Legislature, a consortium of cotton organizations and nonprofit entities expressed their collective plea. They emphasize that the intended grant will not usher in profitability for the businesses in question. Instead, it serves a more critical purpose: ensuring necessary cash flow to maintain employment levels and sustain the operational capacities of the businesses amid these challenging times.

The future looks equally challenging, as per projections from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Their seasonal drought outlook forecasts that the pervasive drought conditions will persist, particularly in the High Plains, further stressing the state's cotton producers in the forthcoming year.

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