The first 2018 in the field farm bill listening session by the House Agriculture Committee was in Gainesville, Fla., June 24, where the committee heard publically what needs changing, but most importantly, what doesn’t need messing with in the next bill.
To the backdrop of multiple years of suppressed prices for traditional farm bill commodities and farm incomes cut in half across much of the U.S. farm landscape, opening the session “Conversations in the Field,” House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, from Texas, made a few points to the gathering:
- The next farm bill will come with harder choices to make and will have fewer resources in which to fund it than the 2014 legislation.
- There will not be the direct payments, which were done away with in the last bill. So, they will not be able to harvest that money back into the system again.
- He and the committee are driven to get next farm bill done on time. The current farm bill expires Sept. 30, 2018.
- The decisions that need to get made for September 2018 will not get any easier in October of 2018. “We’re just going to have to go ahead and make them. We hope to get it done on time, right, wrong or indifferent, to let you know what you have to live with the next five years: the producers, bankers, creditors, equipment dealers.”
The majority of the ag committee was at the listening session, which was held at the University of Florida and in committee member Rep. Ted Yoho’s home district. Before the open microphones were put to use, Florida Farm Bureau President John Hoblick and Georgia Farm Bureau President Gerald Long provided opening statements. Both remind the committee of the diverse opportunities provided by and the unique challenges faced by Southeast agriculture.
Hoblick said the “traditional” farm bill crops help Florida, but the majority of the crops that make Florida agriculture are “often forgotten in the context of the farm bill.”
Along with maintaining current levels of federal funding, “which would provide needed certainty to Florida in these uncertain times,” he said FFB supports national farm policy that includes funding for production price and yield-lose safety nets, specialty crop block grants, targeted research to eradicate citrus greening, invasive species and exotic diseases monitoring and prevention, and robust, producer-friendly conservation programs, which are particularly popular and essential for Florida producers to continue conservation plans in the state.
GFB President Long stressed the importance of maintaining a sound crop insurance program in the next farm bill. He pointed to weather-related risks producers can’t avoid, such as last season’s severe drought in Georgia and other Southeastern states, followed by a devastating spring freeze and heavy rainfall this spring. He asked the committee to oppose any efforts to undermine the effectiveness of the crop insurance program.
Long championed the need to keep the current farm bill peanut program and peanut reference price intact and a part of the 2018 bill, saying the Price Loss Coverage program has worked to stabilize the peanut industry during uncertain times. He recommended cotton in some way become a PLC-covered commodity in the next farm bill. The current farm bill's cotton STAX insurance program isn’t working. He also said cotton and peanut rely heavily on a properly functioning marketing loan program, which must continue be part of the farm bill.
Following the brief panel discussion with Long and Hoblick, the committee opened the session to comments from the audience. Restricted to about two minutes per person, more than three dozen people addressed the committee.
Here’s an annotated version of some of the topics and suggestions made to the committee during the session.
A few people, including three farmers, told the committee the current peanut program was unfair and didn’t work for some peanut farmers who are mostly non-base growers. They told the committee the PLC peanut program has distorted the market and adversely affected their operations. A half dozen people, including farmers, a sheller and the executive directors representing Alabama, Georgia and Florida peanut farmer groups, told the committee to maintain the current peanut program at the current reference price, pointing, again, to the stabilizing quality of the program for the industry and that the peanut market remains tight with no oversupply of peanuts artificially distorting the marketing.
The Southern Peanut Farmers Federation June 26 launched the campaign website www.PeanutProgramWorks.com to showcase the benefits of the Price Loss Coverage program in the 2014 Farm Bill.
With Florida being one of the top cattle producing states, representatives from the Florida livestock industry stressed the need to appropriate funds for a national foot and mouth disease vaccine bank.
Several participants echoed the need for a better cotton safety net in the next farm bill, returning it to title 1 status. Also important to the U.S. cotton industry is the access to foreign markets, which efforts are supported by the Market Access Program and the Foreign Market Development program, both funded through the farm bill but with neither seeing an increase in funding in more than a decade.
Cotton prices over the last several years haven’t consistently covered the cost of production in the Southeast, with some speakers saying that now cotton infrastructure is being put at jeopardy with warehouses and gins feeling the crunch along with producers. If the cotton infrastructure is allowed to crumble, a simple flip of a switch will not bring it back to the Southeast.
Though foreign labor falls under immigration policy, several during the session asked the ag committee members to help reform current farm labor policies. The current H-2A program U.S. farmer can use to bring in foreign labor works but is cumbersome and needs reform. The lack of reliable labor hinders many producers in the Southeast from fruit and vegetable growers to dairyman, with one dairyman during the session asking for access to the H-2A program.
Champions of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, in which the majority of farm bill funding goes to, reminded committee member of the importance of providing healthy, reliable assistance to those struggling to feed themselves and families. Conaway following the session told the audience a driving question he is asking in order to make decisions for the next farm bill will be how those decisions affect the price or access to food for the mother of four at the lower end of the economic strata struggling to feed her family.
Steven Dicks, a farmer from Lake City, Fla., told the committee that a lot of rural communities are dying not only in central Florida and south Georgia but in each of their districts as well. Essential USDA rural development funding is needed to help these communities address crumbling infrastructure issues and not get left behind or allowed to fade.
Speaking to the Choir
As the session closed, Conaway made one important point: “The problem is that you’re preaching to the choir. My guess is that everyone (of the committee members) sitting at this table will vote for the farm bill. There are some 70 members of congress who represent rural America, which means there are 360 that don’t and that is where all the votes are. … But I need that bigger group that benefits from the farm bill and that is every single person out there who eats every day; they should be in favor of a strong farm bill,” he said.
There was not enough time during the roughly three-hour session to allow all who wanted to speak publicly speak. Those who didn’t get a chance or who wanted to submit additional supportive documentation were asked to send it to [email protected] And you can submit your recommendation or concerns about the next farm bill to that email, too.