Whether it’s corn, wheat or soybean, Kansas grows it. And given the importance of those crops to the United States economy, people who live in cities might be forgiven for thinking the Sunflower State’s farmers have it made.
Paul Johnson, an organic farmer in Jefferson County, just northeast of Topeka, and a policy analyst for the Kansas Rural Center, says the situation in farmland is much more dire than most people know.
“Two or three folks out of a hundred are involved in agriculture at this point, so it’s out of sight, out of mind,” Johnson says.
To ease the load of family farmers struggling to make ends meet, he recommends that people who live in cities and suburbs — and the legislators who represent them — support four policy changes:
1) Reorient the Farm Bill
The vast amount of Farm Bill payments go toward making up for low crop prices and crop insurance, Johnson says, and that goes to the larger and larger farms. He says more government assistance should go to smaller farms.
“Kansas has about 60,000 farms and a third of them get no federal help at all,” he says.
That means many farmers have no economic net to catch them when things go wrong.
Kansas exported more than $844 million worth of wheat in 2016, down from more than $1.2 billion in 2012.
Credit K-State Research and Extension
“If they gave me that magic wand, I would put clear subsidy caps on the largest farms and reorient that money towards conservation, planning by farmers for their land, and water treatment,” Johnson says.
And it’s not just farmers who depend on Farm Bill policies for their livelihood. Nutrition programs like SNAP, which provides food assistance to low-income people, make up the bulk of Farm Bill spending.
“There’s just a bright line drawn between farm programs and food programs,” says Johnson, who has spent decades watching the Kansas legislature debate agriculture policy. “You never have a coordinated dialogue between what’s happening with food stamps, what’s happening with farm programs, how are they integrated, and we should be able to do it.”
2) Expand Medicaid in Kansas
“Half the farmers in Kansas have to work off-farm to get health insurance or to balance what they’re not getting on income on the farm,” Johnson says.
Expanding Medicaid, he says, “would make a big difference.” It would particularly help shore up mental health resources in a state that doesn’t have a great deal of them to offer.
“Farmers are pretty stoic lot and pretty solitary, and sharing some of those concerns and (crises) can be difficult,” he says. “Unfortunately I think a number of farmers are on their own.”
Rural health systems could also benefit from Medicaid expansion. According to the Sheps Center for Health Services Research, 94 rural hospitals have closed in the U.S. since 2010, and most of them were in states that did not to pursue expansion. Several polls suggest a majority of Kansans favor Medicaid expansion.
3) Fix rural housing
Any hope of keeping people from leaving rural parts of the state hinges on being able to provide them with housing.
Under Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, the Kansas Division of Housing became the Kansas Housing Resources Corporation and the legislature lost sight of it, Johnson says.
“And that’s supposed to be our statewide housing agency.”
New apartments under construction in Holdrege, Nebraska, where an elementary school used to be.
Credit Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media
To reengage lawmakers and the public, Johnson suggests taking a lesson from history.
“Governors prior to (Kathleen) Sebelius and (Bill) Graves had governor’s commissions on housing that brought recommendations regularly to the legislature,” he says. “All of that has just drifted away.”
4) Cut Kansas’ sales tax on groceries
Gov. Laura Kelly has said she’s in favor of giving food shoppers a break, but that she wants to wait until 2020 to change any tax laws. Meanwhile, Kansans are stuck paying a 6.5 percent sales tax on groceries, one of the highest rates in the country.
“It’s very costly,” Johnson says, but it’s one more step toward getting healthy food to the people who can least afford it.
“There’s a whole educational campaign that needs to be done,” he says. “We go for the fat, sugar and salt diet — the Western diet that we’ve propelled around the world. America really needs take a hard look, because what we subsidize in our Farm Bill and the commodities that we grow really drives us towards a very poor nutritional diet.”
Paul Johnson spoke with Steve Kraske on a recent episode of KCUR’s Up To Date. Listen to their entire conversation here.
Luke X. Martin is associate producer of KCUR’s Up To Date. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter, @lukexmartin.