IMPORTANT: It's a Serious Matter of Life

Hearing highlights challenges for Arkansas farmers, food supply

Arkansas' largest crop is being disproportionately affected by steep input costs that are not reflected in its price, members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry were told Friday.

U.S. Sen. John Boozman, an Arkansas Republican and the committee's ranking member, hosted a hearing on the 2023 U.S. Farm Bill at Arkansas State University. The farm bill is considered by Congress every five years.

Rice is Arkansas' top crop, and farmers need help, said Jennifer James, a Newport rice farmer and chair of the USA Rice Sustainability Committee.

"Our current estimate is that rice acreage will fall to 2.2 million acres this year," James said. "That's a 27% decline from our average historical acreage of three million. With acres declining as fast one must question how far and how long the unique infrastructure needed to handle and process rice can survive."

Other panel members said they were concerned about crop insurance. Mark Morgan, a fifth-generation peach farmer from Clarksville, said peach farmers face challenges in April, including frost or hail damage.

The high premiums "don't make sense for most of us," Morgan said. "When you have two or three bad years in a row, you're down."

Farmers rely on technology. While the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act sets aside money to expand broadband to rural areas, more focus is needed on access and not speeds, said Elizabeth Bowles, president and CEO of Little Rock's Aristotle Unified Communications.

"It is critical that the farm bill broadband programs stay focused on truly unserved rural communities and not become distracted by hype that pushes for maximum speeds today, when those speeds will come at the cost of getting reliable and affordable broadband service to all of rural America," Bowles said in her testimony. "No community should be asked to shoulder the burden of waiting years for broadband just to meet the needs of special interest groups that are pushing a single technology."

The farm bill also provides money for food banks and programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Food banks were challenged during the pandemic and are now facing new enemies-inflation and supply chain disruptions, said Rhonda Sanders, chief executive officer of the Arkansas Food Bank, which serves 33 counties.

"These enemies disproportionally affect rural communities," Sanders said. "The people we serve lack the resources to travel further and to pay more. There are already limited grocery stores but now they lack product."

Food and agriculture generate $92 billion in Arkansas and support nearly $500,000 jobs and $23 billion in wages, Boozman said. Along with rice, the state is also a leading producer of cotton, soybeans, poultry and timber.

"And even with all this success, 53 of Arkansas' 75 counties lost population in the last census, something that is far too common in rural counties throughout the U.S., Boozman said. "To stem this loss, we must ensure our farm families and rural residents have access to affordable electricity, high-speed internet and safe drinking water. Those forms of infrastructure are essential services and with proper investment, rural communities can measurably increase their quality of life."

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