Farm bill conference gets underway

The 2018 farm bill conference formally got underway Sept. 5 with all members of the conference offering speeches, but the real work of the 56-member conference already has begun with staff from both parties and both houses working through the House recess in August while the Senate took off only about two weeks of leave home.

Part of that work included submitting the week prior to Labor Day what House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-TX, described to Politico as “significant compromises” on the House Republican Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. While Conaway declined to go into specifics, he said his offer demonstrates he’s “willing to move off House positions, but it’s got to make sense.”

With that, the conference leaders laid down their markers on the final farm bill with their opening statements. Senate Agriculture Committee Pat Roberts, R-KS, reminded the many newer members about how farm bills are passed.

“This is the eighth farm bill that I’ve been a part of during my time in public service. The circumstances are always a bit different, but we all have a history of working together in a bipartisan, bicameral fashion to find solutions and to get farm bills done. If it was important then, it is even more so now,” Roberts said.

“The goal, the responsibility, the absolute requirement is to provide farmers, ranchers, growers and everyone within America’s agriculture and food value chain certainty and predictability during these very difficult times. This is paramount to many other issues and concerns. Let me repeat that: getting a farm bill done is paramount to many other issues and concerns.”

Many needs

Roberts said the goal is to craft a farm bill that meets the needs of producers across all regions and all crops.

“All of agriculture is struggling, not just one or two commodities. We must have a bill that works across our great nation. We must ensure that our voluntary conservation programs are keeping farmland in operation while protecting our agriculture lands, forests and other natural resources,” Roberts said.

“Let us not forget that in a few short decades, the global population will top 9 billion people. Agriculture production will need to double in the near future to meet that demand. Accomplishing this task requires efficiency, not just on the farm and ranch, but also in government.”

Then Roberts hit the hot button issue of the nutrition title, striking at the heart of the House bill, which creates a job-training program while adding standards for the poor to enter the program.

“We must focus on program integrity and commonsense investments to strengthen our nutrition programs to ensure the pathway to long-term success of those in need of assistance,” Roberts said. “I share the goal of promoting work and self-sufficiency among SNAP participants.

“And, we can find ways to work toward that goal by improving the program. Investments in employment and training that demonstrate success, partnerships with the private sector and more accountability can all help get folks back on the path to long-term employment.

“We can find ways to provide tools to states, to people, to employers and to non-profits that will get people working again. And, we can further improve the integrity of the nutrition program, with changes to the verification process, better quality control oversight and elimination of much of the state ‘performance’ bonuses.”

Roberts added the conference must commit to making the tough choices—and compromising to find common ground—to develop the best bill possible under these circumstances.

“And, importantly, we must agree to a bill that provides our farmers, ranchers and other rural stakeholders much needed certainty and predictability,” Roberts said.

Dem leader seeks bipartisanship

Senate Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow, D-MI, said the conference committee meeting shows that through hard work and perseverance, bipartisanship is still possible.

“The Senate delivered a strong farm bill that maintained the bipartisan food, farm and conservation coalition,” Stabenow said. “In addition to having the support of over 500 groups, it passed on a historic vote of 86-11—the most votes a farm bill has ever received in the Senate since the very first bill in the 1933 during the depths of the Great Depression.

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“While we’re not in the 1930s, times are tough for our agricultural economy. Commodity prices are low, trade disruptions are creating uncertainty, and many farmers are struggling.”

Stabenow said farmers and ranchers need the certainty of a five-year farm bill.

“Chairman Roberts and I worked side by side on every part of our bill—from the Commodity and Conservation Titles to the Nutrition Title. Because we know that feeding people in need and helping them find good paying jobs doesn’t have to be a partisan issue. In fact, it shouldn’t be.

“We have two basic safety nets in the farm bill, one for farmers and one for families. We know that the costs of the farmer safety net are going up because of drops in commodity prices, massive uncertainty on trade and serious labor challenges. The good news is that the safety net for families—or SNAP—is working and costs are going down.

“Therefore, massive eligibility changes that would take away SNAP benefits for 2 million people and subject millions of moms with young children, seniors and others to unnecessary paperwork burdens makes no sense.”

Stabenow ran through a list of issues the Senate bill has while making it known there are important differences between the House and Senate bills.

“One thing we all agree on is the urgent need to pass a five year farm bill,” Stabenow said. “I believe if we work together, our conference committee can carry on the tradition of passing a bipartisan farm bill, and that we can get it done by Sept. 30. I look forward to working with members of this committee to do just that.”

Tough times on the farm

Conaway described the current farm situation in his opening statement, describing how the U.S. Department of Agriculture is projecting net farm income will be down another 13 percent this year. Producer incomes are roughly half of what they were when farm bill conferees last met back in October 2013.

“Put simply, we are in the fifth year of a severe recession in farm country, and it doesn’t appear to be letting up any time soon,” Conaway said. “Farm bankruptcies are up 39 percent over the past two years alone. Yet, in the face of these conditions, USDA also projects that spending on the farm safety net will actually drop significantly as the Agricultural Risk Coverage program withers under the strain of the current farm economy.

“While the farm bill covers a wide range of important policies, I submit that it is the primary job of this conference committee to provide—as Chairman Roberts would say—the predictability and stability of a farm safety net. Thus far in the process, we have honored calls from across the country to do no harm to crop insurance.”

In regard to areas needing improvement, Conaway noted the need for a well-funded animal disease preparedness and response program, describing how the state of House Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Collin Peterson, D-MN, suffered significantly due to avian influenza, and the need to prevent additional outbreaks in the future.

“We put strong funding in the House farm bill, and Mr. Peterson’s motion to instruct, which was overwhelmingly approved in the House, urges us to go further,” Conaway said. “Another area that must be safeguarded and improved is the commodity title. The commodity title provides the safety net that is so desperately needed right now by our farmers and ranchers. After all, helping struggling farmers and ranchers weather the current storm is the driving force behind getting this farm bill done—and done on time. We need to be putting more resources into the farm safety net—not less.”

“There are certainly areas of disagreement between the two chambers—disagreements that stretch far beyond the nutrition title and are plainly reflected in our respective versions of the farm bill. But the good news is that I have seen no disagreement that should prevent us from completing a strong farm bill on time. Even on SNAP, I have repeatedly stressed that we are willing and able to come to consensus with the Senate.”

On-time bill necessary

Peterson said the conference should have one goal to complete the farm bill on time.

“Farmers are counting on (the farm bill). We’ve all seen the statistics on the decline of the farm economy, on their struggles with regard to trade, the news of volatile weather, and the range of challenges they face,” Peterson said. “It makes no sense—and it doesn’t benefit those farmers one bit—to relitigate how we got here. It doesn’t get us any closer to our goal.

“We’re all here for the same reason: to deliver for the people who count on the programs within this bill. Those are farmers, they’re consumers, they’re people who care about renewable energy and research and supporting rural communities and conserving our natural resources. This bill tackles all of it and I’m eager to hear your ideas as we move along in this process.

“But more than any one issue, I want a farm bill. I’m here to work and to get a conference report we can all sign, pass through our respective chambers and send to the president to be signed into law. I’ll remind our conferees that should be their goal as well. Nobody in this room is going to get everything he or she wants; this process is about compromise….I suggest we get to work.”

Larry Dreiling can be reached at 785-628-1117 or [email protected].