Now back from August break, the House Agriculture Committee has been busy. The week of September 14 saw two days of oversight hearings with some 24 witnesses from federal departments and agencies with agricultural interests.
The lengthy hearings are “a good opportunity for constructive dialogue between members of this committee and the (USDA),” said Texas Rep. Michael Conaway, chairman of the committee. “In a sense, it is also about team-building. Whatever our political stripes may be, we have shared responsibilities. And, insofar as it is possible, we ought to carry out these responsibilities cooperatively and amicably. I think this goal is achieved more effectively when the members of a team come to know and respect one another.”
Conaway was the first to query witnesses. “The Congressional intent, when we set up the enterprise unit system with irrigated versus non-irrigated, was to allow farmers to mix and match. I think the RMA (Risk Management Agency) has taken a stricter definition. Is there an opportunity for the RMA reevaluate this idea about forcing all irrigated into one unit and all non-irrigated into another?”
The farm bill “provided a significant amount of new options for farmers in the crop insurance title,” replied Brandon Willis, RMA administrator. “Overwhelmingly, farmers have responded positively to those.
“The section you’re talking about – separation of enterprise units by practice – has not (seen) a final rule issued yet. The interim rule was issued a bit over a year ago.”
Where the RMA has a struggle “is we don’t see where the authority is to provide more than separation of coverage by irrigated or non-irrigated. We’ve looked at the report’s language, as well.”
Cotton insurance programs were a top priority for Georgia lawmakers.
“The cotton industry and leaders have been meeting with you in regard to STAX,” said Georgia Rep. Austin Scott. “What kind of timeline do you expect that we’ll be operating under for notification of any changes for (2016)?”
Willis: “The changes in the farm bill were pretty dramatic. … Some of these area-wide programs are new – new to producers, sometimes new to the RMA. We’ve talked to (cotton industry leaders) and tried to take their input and take it to heart. There have been a few other issues we’ve talked about lately.
“I would anticipate very soon we’ll have any decisions made for next year. Some of the requests they have are very reasonable and we’re trying to make those happen. … That’s one reason we implemented programs in the farm bill under a kind of ‘pilot’ authority. That gives us the ability, if something doesn’t work out perfect the first time, to make a few changes so the next year it works out better for producers.”
Scott pushed for a tighter window. “You say ‘soon.’ Does that mean 30 days? 60 days?”
Willis said he was unsure of the exact changes Scott was referencing. “We’ve had conversations on allowing them to purchase STAX on certain practices and a lower percent on other practices. I think that’s already resolved and they’re pleased with the result.”
Georgia Rep. Rick Allen also wanted answers on STAX. “As far as the STAX program, it’s tremendously important for cotton farmers. … It’s my understanding some changes are allowing STAX purchase levels by practice, timing of any indemnity payments figured by STAX in areas where data is available earlier, and offering STAX everywhere cotton is grown. … Do you have a timeline when these changes could be enacted and implemented?
Willis said RMA intends to do the first and third changes Scott mentioned. “The middle one, I’ll have to get back to you as far as the timing. I don’t know if there’s a lot of flexibility there in making payments earlier.”
Allen was also concerned with the USDA’s definition of “actively engaged” producers being eligible for farm bill programs. “I know you’re currently in the final rulemaking phase to implement the farm bill language that modified the ‘actively engaged’ provision. I know you’ve received extensive feedback and concerns from major commodity organizations regarding the impact of the proposed changes. … When does the department expect to release the final rule and what crop year will be affected?”
Val Dolcini, Farm Service Agency administrator, said the rule will apply for 2016 and subsequent years. “There won’t be retroactive application of the rule. … There are exemptions for family members, for spouses and others involved. We’ve tried to focus on large and/or complex operations to determine how many payment limits would apply.”
Conaway was pleased with the committee’s work. “When I became chairman of the Agriculture Committee, I made a commitment to bring USDA officials before the committee and have them explain their budget and missions. The department carries out most of the laws enacted by this committee, so it makes sense for department officials to hear directly from members about our responsibilities and the issues and policies we care about.
“It is equally important for committee members to see how these policies are implemented and what challenges, if any, USDA faces in implementing them. … I hope to continue this open dialogue moving forward.”