When the U.S. Congress adopted a new farm bill in 2002, many farmers found themselves scratching their heads over the complex one-time decisions they had to make when signing up for government programs. A computerized spreadsheet developed by a North Carolina Cooperative Extension educator helped hundreds make bottom-line sense of the bill’s provisions. Using the spreadsheet, producers were able to analyze their production costs, contract prices and potential government payments under a vastly different peanut program. And they could calculate how the options for updating base acres and program yields would influence their payments.
The 137 Martin County producers who used the spreadsheet saw a potential annual difference of $674,465 between best and second-best options. Multiplying that figure by the six years that the farm bill is in effect, spreadsheet author J.B. Coltrain estimates that the growers could see $4 million in additional payments that they wouldn’t have gotten had they chosen the wrong option. Coltrain is the director of Extension programs in Martin County. While his spreadsheet was not the only one developed to help farmers understand the Farm Bill, it was one of the first — and it was simple, quick and accurate.
“I developed the program because I realized the farm bill was very complicated and there would be a lot of money involved — a lot of money could be lost over the life of the farm bill by making a wrong choice,” said Coltrain. “But I didn’t realize myself how much money was involved. For one farmer in our county with 10 farms, the difference was nearly $37,000 in just one year.”
The spreadsheet was just one of the ways Coltrain and other Extension agents helped educate producers about the farm bill. Through Extension meetings, news articles and newsletters, Extension agents worked to make sure growers had the information they needed to make wise decisions.