Farm bill debates
The struggle to provide the best farm bill possible with a tighter budget will make all the hard decisions that much harder.

Senate easily passes new farm bill out of committee

A quick look at the Senate farm bill with economist Keith Coble.

In mid-June, the Senate Agriculture Committee passed its version of a new farm bill on a vote of 20-1. The easily-passed legislation was a marked contrast to what happened a month earlier with the House version that went down on the legislative body’s floor in a contentious 213-198 vote.

Shortly after the House vote, Keith Coble said, “The failure of the farm bill passing this week is indicative of the fine line leaders in the House are walking between Democrat members and the conservative wing of the Republican Party.”

While Coble — currently head of the Agricultural Economics Department at Mississippi State University — isn’t fully convinced a new farm bill will be completed by year’s end, he is now more optimistic.

What are the chances we will have a new farm bill before the elections in November?

“I think the chances have increased because there’s increasingly a path forward in the House,” says Coble, who was the chief economist for the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee during the crafting of the 2014 farm bill. “However, there can still be twists and turns in conference. In addition, this is an election year — that typically means a light congressional calendar in the fall.”

First impressions

What are Coble’s first impressions of the Senate farm bill?

“It is obviously very bipartisan. There was only one vote against it in committee.

“The Senate bill, in many respects, isn’t very radical from the current farm bill. It does not make big changes to the commodity title, nor does it make big changes in crop insurance. However, expect amendments from the floor that would affect commodity programs and crop insurance.

“The Senate bill is different from the House bill in the way it treats SNAP — SNAP is largely left alone by the Senate committee. If the House gets its bill through, probably the most difficult task in conference will be reconciling SNAP provisions.”

Regionally

How can the Senate’s bill be viewed regionally?

“My sense is the commodities that have heavily participated in the PLC program — rice, peanuts, and the new seed cotton program — were largely untouched. There was a push to make the ARC program more attractive for corn and soybeans with some offsets from PLC savings. That did not make it into the (Senate Agriculture Committee’s) bill. However, I think there will be an effort to add an amendment on the floor. That will probably be a regional flashpoint.

“Cotton and dairy still get linked together. There was an amendment that led to a debate between the Midwest and the South. However, for the most part it was not a very contentious meeting of the Senate ag committee.”

Since the House farm bill vote failed, has there been any movement, any give, from the faction on the right that made a lot of noise?

“The Freedom Caucus was pushing for a vote on an immigration bill that has now been scheduled.” North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, the Republican Freedom Caucus chairman, “has announced he will support the House farm bill. (House Agriculture Committee) Chairman Conaway is looking to get enough Republican votes to pass a bill that will likely have little if any Democratic support.”

Meanwhile, back in the Senate, majority leader Mitch McConnell has “said he has reserved time on the Senate floor to debate the farm bill before July 4. That is significant because it is difficult to get floor time in the Senate.”

Concerns and tariffs

What are the main concerns Coble is hearing from growers?

“For row-crop producers, there will be a choice between ARC and PLC. We’re looking into what will happen when producers are given that choice.

“Last time around, for most people it was pretty obvious what to choose if you grow corn or soybeans. For this farm bill, there may be reasons to reconsider that decision going forward.

“Of course, growers will have to make choices in the new seed cotton program.”

What about the trade tariffs recently announced by the White House? Is Coble worried about retaliatory actions by other countries against the U.S. agriculture sector?

“As an ag economist, I understand the benefits of trade. This is an area where most economists all say the same thing: increased trade is beneficial for both countries if it can be done in an equitable fashion.  Remember tariffs can be thought of as a tax on consumers.

“There is a certain amount of posturing necessary to get a deal. However, if we do get into a trade war, it will be detrimental to both countries.

“The key thing is the ag sector is unique from many other segments of the U.S. economy because we are so export-oriented. That exposes agriculture to retaliation if another country wants to hit the U.S. where it hurts. Our ag products are an obvious target.

“Consider Mississippi soybeans. Last year, Mississippi’s soybean crop was worth over $1.1 Billion. However, November soybean futures have fallen 12 percent since May 25. It appears much of that decline is due to trade concerns.”

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