OPINION

Senatorial Update with Deb Fischer

Nebraska City News-Press

The Future of Ag

In March 2020, like so many other businesses across the country, Mac’s Creek Winery in Lexington was forced to shut their tasting room’s doors. But instead of giving up, they began hosting virtual tastings on Facebook Live, inviting people to enjoy their Nebraska-made wines at home.

Their livestreams soon grew to reach thousands of people across Nebraska and beyond, earning them a mention from HGTV and an award for Best Virtual Event from the Nebraska Tourism Industry. When I visited Mac’s Creek earlier this year, I saw firsthand how they were able to turn the adversity of the pandemic to their advantage. But almost a decade ago, they adapted to an even greater challenge that nearly wiped out their entire business.

In 2013, herbicide drift from nearby farms killed off nearly all of their 4,000 grapevines. They lost years of hard work and more than a million dollars in potential sales. In the aftermath, just as they did during the pandemic, they turned to innovative new technologies to protect their life’s work.

Mac’s Creek invested in specialized drones, which can help them watch for early signs of herbicide drift and stop it before it even starts. They haven’t suffered another setback since.

These drones are just one example of what is known as precision agriculture technology, which can help producers of all kinds run their farms and ranches. If a corn farmer wants to reduce inputs while getting better results, precision ag can help them do that. Ranchers can use these technologies to track feed intake, monitor their herd’s health, and even measure emissions from their cattle.

Nebraska is leading the way in the adoption of these technologies, but they aren’t cheap. And if new equipment might only help a farmer with a small operation save a few dollars an acre next season, a big initial investment may be hard to justify. 

This is why I recently introduced the Precision Agriculture Loan (PAL) Act, along with Democrat Senator Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota. Our bipartisan bill would create a program at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to offer long-term loans to producers who would like to adopt these technologies.

The Precision Agriculture Loan program would save producers thousands of dollars in interest compared to loans from traditional banks. It would cover up to $500,000 in low-interest loans for any precision ag equipment that improves efficiency or reduces inputs.

On top of the potential economic benefits for producers, precision agriculture can do wonders for the environment. In Nebraska, these technologies have already allowed many producers to reduce soil erosion and increase water quality in the area around their operations. Our producers are excellent stewards of the land, and precision ag can help them conserve precious resources.

Groups from many different backgrounds are supporitng the bill. Dr. Leah Barrett, the president of Northeast Community College, told me that this loan program “will be a great way to help farmers access these new technologies to lower input costs and protect our agricultural land.” And Mark McHargue, president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation, said that “the adoption of precision technologies by farmers and ranchers will lead to a more sustainable future for our nation’s food producers, both environmentally and economically.”

Another bill I introduced earlier this year, which would make it easier for producers to connect precision ag technologies to each other through the Internet of Things, passed the Senate and has also seen a positive response. The reason why is clear: Precision agriculture is beneficial for producers, rural communities, and the environment.

The biggest barrier to adoption is the up-front cost of the equipment, and that cost is often difficult for small family farms, who may not be able to take the same risks as larger farms. The Precision Agriculture Loan Act will give all producers the backing they need to manage those risks.

Thank you for participating in the democratic process. I look forward to visiting with you again next week.

Deb Fischer