producers make complex
Farm Bill decisions
When the U.S. Congress adopted a new Farm Bill last year, many producers across the country 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 farm 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.
Before the new Farm Bill, farmers had one program yield on which government payments were based. But the new Farm Bill provides for both fixed payments and what are called “countercyclical” payments. The combinations of new and old acreage and yield bases and new payment structures made decision making difficult.
“ 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, the county Extension director. “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.”
Coltrain was also surprised that updating base yields wasn’t always a good idea. “Until I developed the spreadsheet, I thought that 95 percent of the time you’d want to update your base, but it turned out that about 20 percent were better off staying with the old base,” he said.
While Coltrain’s was not the only spreadsheet or program developed to help farmers understand the Farm Bill, it was one of the first — and it was simple, quick and accurate, said Bobby Rose, with the local U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency.
“ J.B.’s spreadsheet showed how different choices would affect the farmer’s payments — and that’s what the farmers wanted to know — how much money was involved. And our stuff didn’t do that,” said Rose, whose agency administers federal farm programs. “It made life so much easier for us because farmers came to us having used the program and knowing what they wanted to do.”
The program also proved beneficial to Coltrain’s fellow Extension agents, who were swamped with growers’ questions.
“ If I hadn’t had that program, I don’t know what I would’ve done,” said Lewis Smith, Extension director in Perquimans County. “FSA didn’t have the time to answer all the questions farmers had, so many people were coming to Extension for answers. J.B.’s was the first program to come out and the least complicated.
“ The big thing was that J.B. wasn’t selfish; he shared the program with a substantial number of fellow Extension agents and interested farmers. Very few people have the ability to write a program like he did, and his farm management background gave him the ability to look at the draft farm bill early, read between the lines and help us understand the implications,” Smith added.
The spreadsheet was just one of the ways Smith, Coltrain and other agricultural 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 that they needed to make wise decisions.
Coltrain put it: “I feel like a part of my job is to help
the farmers in Martin County understand the rules and play by the rules
to their best benefit. And this is just one way of doing that.”