Uncertain Times

Ag groups defend funding for the 2018 farm bill in an unsettled political and economic environment.

Published online: Oct 30, 2017 Articles Suzanne Bopp
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This article appears as the cover feature in the November 2017 issue of Potato Grower

With the 2018 U.S. farm bill on the horizon, ag policy experts and leaders are turning their attention to creating legislation that benefits agriculture as a whole. It comes at a time of uncertainty.

“We don’t think we have a crisis yet, but it could be not too far down the road, depending on weather and yields this year,” says Mary Kay Thatcher, the American Farm Bureau Federation’s senior director of congressional relations. “We always say you write farm bills for the bad times, not the good, and here we are.” 

Although farm bills are created every five years, they use a 10-year baseline. For example, when the 2014 U.S. farm bill passed, it was projected to cost $956 billion over the decade. In January, the Congressional Budget Office estimated it will cost $80 billion less than projected, primarily as a result of lower-than-projected costs in the nutrition and crop insurance programs. Many say that as members of Congress consider a new farm bill, they should recognize the substantial savings already achieved. 

“Advocates in agriculture will fight to keep the most funding they can, no matter what the score is,” says Laura Peterson, head of federal government relations for Syngenta. “That ties to the reason for keeping SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] in the farm bill. Nutrition accounts for a large percentage of the farm bill budget, resulting in benefits to constituencies across the country, from families putting food on the table to retail supplying food and farmers supplying retail. The whole food chain is arguably involved in the large cost, but also the big benefit. Without SNAP, the farm bill wouldn’t get as much attention. Every state has people using it.” 

Thatcher agrees on the importance of not splitting farm and nutrition programs: “If that happened, we don’t believe we would ever get a farm bill through the House of Representatives, so that’s a very high priority.” 

A full 77 percent of the current farm bill’s funding goes to those nutrition programs, leaving 23 percent for issues that directly affect ag programs. 

 

Crop Insurance

Crop insurance, accounting for about 8.5 percent of the farm bill and covering 90 percent of U.S. cropland, is especially crucial now. The Department of Agriculture estimates net farm income for 2016 was $54.8 billion, compared to $123.3 billion in 2013—a 46 percent reduction. 

But ag policy experts expect crop insurance to be a major target for legislators looking for cuts. “Our opposition wants to cut the discount that farmers get on their premiums and make cuts to the private sector delivery,” says Tara Smith, vice president of federal affairs at Michael Torrey Associates, LLC, an ag lobbying firm based in Washington. “A lot of folks want to add means testing to crop insurance. We know how to get the facts out there to defend against those changes.” 

Those same kinds of amendments have been floating around for a long time, Thatcher says. While working to defeat them, Farm Bureau is working on other strategies, too, including a private policy for dairy revenue insurance. Farm Bureau also hopes to take the $20 million cap off the Livestock Gross Margin Insurance Plan. “It includes Whole-Farm Revenue Protection under that cap,” Thatcher says. “We’re trying to remove the cap so more people can be covered by it.” 

 

Conservation Programs

Conservation programs—now about 6 percent of the farm bill budget—will also have to compete to maintain funding levels; disparate farm interests are joining that debate.

“You see some unusual partnerships coming together, such as conservation interests and crop insurance interests, realizing it’s in all of our interest to work together to preserve these baselines,” says Peterson. 

Meanwhile, there’s concern about the new administration’s emphasis on budget cuts.

“I see the need for the priorities this administration is talking about,” says John Larson, senior vice president of policy and programs at American Farmland Trust. “Fiscal responsibility is important, but not at the expense of our natural environment and the long-term ability for us to produce food, feed, fiber and fuel.”

Larson hopes to see a balance of those needs. 

“Part of the new administration’s platform was a regulatory reform approach, which I agree with, but with a caveat: If we don’t have a regulatory push toward protecting the natural resource-based building blocks of life, then we need to do something,” says Larson. “That’s where Title II of the farm bill, the conservation title, comes in. We’re really hoping that Congress will keep conservation a focal point and fund programs at a level that can accomplish a voluntary incentive-based approach to natural resource conservation.” 

 

Commodities and Other Programs 

Commodity program provisions make up about 6 percent of the farm bill; specialty crops and other programs are the last 1 percent.

“Defending the societal investment in these programs remains a critical priority for our sector,” says Peterson. 

Similarly, the ag industry supports programs related to ag research, such as the Ag and Food Research Initiative, and crucial trade programs.

“Two programs in the farm bill help grow our exports: Foreign Market Development and Market Access Program,” Peterson continues. “We’re looking to bolster these, even in this tight budget, because international export markets are critical for our American ag economy.” 

Given the politicized atmosphere in Washington now, none of this will be easy.

“We have a very difficult budget scenario right now, where folks are looking at cuts more than anything,” says Smith. “That’s a difficult environment in which to write a bill.” 

 

This article first appeared in Thrive, the Syngenta magazine and website for growers and other ag professionals. To read more news from Syngenta, visit www.syngentathrive.com.