Next year, the Agricultural Act of 2014 (more commonly known as the farm bill) will expire, meaning negotiations for the new bill are in full swing.
Politicians, commodity groups, lobbyists and, well, practically anyone attached to the agriculture sector are sharpening their talking points and preparing their social media campaigns. What's at stake? A slice of the $457 billion federal budget pie.
For those who may not know, the farm bill is – in simplest terms – a multiyear bill that governs agriculture and food programs. The first farm bill was passed by Congress in 1933 as part of former President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. The goal of the original legislation was to provide assistance to farmers struggling through the Great Depression.
Through the decades, the farm bill has continued to morph, grow and, of course, become more complex. With each iteration comes more subjects, and more subjects create more conflict.
Disagreement is not bad. Working through conflict can even be beneficial. However, farm bill negotiations often devolve into Game of Thrones-esque feuds, where interrelated groups become locked in needless turf wars.
This negotiation process inevitably drags our perspectives backward. We end up focusing on the different factions of agriculture instead of keeping our perspective toward the future and the obstacles we must overcome in the 21st century. We should be challenging the status quo and devising new solutions instead of rehashing old policies.
Let's move past seeing the farm bill as anything more than a piece of government legislation. It is helpful, but it is not the ultimate answer. By placing our hope solely in government funds, we demonstrate the narrowness of our perspective and limit potential avenues of action.
Let's paint a different picture for American agriculture – one that is derived from informed thinking not rooted in limited perspectives of the 1930s or today's emotion-driven dogma disguised as facts. Today's policies can generate innovative solutions for tomorrow if we think differently.
Let's build a farm bill that enhances rural communities and lays the groundwork for future discoveries. Let's base the farm bill on four common sense pillars: a safety net for farmers, conservation, trade, and research and technology.
Surely there is a need to protect farmers' interests beyond traditional insurance. They are the caretakers of our land and the protectors of our food supply. Helping them survive is an unquestionable mandate. But we must also be willing to sacrifice outdated spending practices just like we moved past the mule-drawn plow.
The needs of the agriculture sector have changed, and questions facing our producers are more complex than ever before. How do we grow more food and fiber with less inputs, water and land? Can we improve our ecosystems while still pulling sustenance from them? How do we handle climate shifts, sequester carbon and ensure healthy watersheds?
The answers are not found by repeating yesterday's mistakes. They are found in collaboration, hard work and making a case for how funds should be used for 21st century agriculture. They are waiting for us in the depths of research, in the newest technology and in the next discovery. But we must work for them together.
We must dive into the soil below our feet and understand the teeming life therein. An unseen world awaits us, one that holds the potential to not only serve as the foundation for food production but sequester carbon, provide clean water and build new market opportunities.
We must view the natural resources around us as part of a complex system that requires us to understand and participate with it, not control it. And we must keep our eyes on the horizon, looking to identify and shape trends that will become tomorrow's usable tools.
How do we fund all of these grand ideas, you ask? A new vision requires new visionaries.
The development of the agricultural research organization (ARO for short, see the A Brand New Era story) can serve as a new nonprofit vehicle for individuals or families who want to commit their wealth for the conduct of agricultural research.
The creation of just one new ARO could spur innovation toward a specific agricultural challenge or reshape a region just as the Noble Research Institute has impacted the Southern Great Plains. A dozen or more new AROs could dramatically impact agricultural productivity across the country and around the world.
All that is needed is bold men and women with a passion for a cause, like our founder, Lloyd Noble, who saw the land destroyed after the great Dust Bowl and sought a lasting answer. This new generation of Noble-like philanthropists can ignite action with their resources and spark innovations that ripple for generations. It is time for them to step forward and use this new tool to revolutionize agriculture.
A handful of these pioneers can complement and build capacity over and above what the government supplies. We can finally achieve food security, environmental stewardship and economic prosperity. But we must change our thinking, and we must focus on tomorrow not the past.
Otherwise, I'll be writing these same words again in four years.