House ag leaders absorb dry woes, farm bill tweaks from Kansans

Drought nearly upstaged a recent gathering on federal farm policy in a steel building north of Gypsum, Kansas, but it all melded into one mission—feeding people and keeping producers in business.

Some 200 people from agriculture, academia, industry, and other walks of life formed an audience in Justin and Lindsey Knopf’s farm shop, a short stroll from a field of thirsty wheat.

Seated on a flatbed trailer, two federal lawmakers soaked up suggestions for the next farm bill at the Kansas Food & Agriculture Listening Session.

Aiming to pass a replacement to the projected $428 billion 2018 farm bill before it expires in late September, U.S. Reps Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-PA, and Tracey Mann, R-KS, listened intently and jotted on notepads.

“This may be my favorite setting,” Thompson said. “It’s definitely my favorite backdrop.”

The agriculture leaders spoke in front of three modern combines—a John Deere, Gleaner, and Case IH—each draped with an American flag.

One by one for about an hour, folks in the crowd of nearly 200 offered pleas for provisions to be included, added or improved on in the next chapter of federal farm policy.

“It was a wide-open forum and any topic was on the table,” said state Rep. Ken Rahjes, of the 110th District and chairman of the Kansas House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

Requests ranged from federally subsidized crop insurance to nutrition programs, primarily the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that was paid for with an estimated $325.8 billion, 76% of the 2018 farm bill, according to

Thompson, chairman of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, and Mann, chairman of the sub-committee on livestock, dairy and poultry, and other duties, urged attendees to take part in the listening session.

“Ag producers and leaders from all over care about our state and our country,” Mann said. “It’s fantastic to have our chairman (in Kansas) in a year we do another farm bill. A lot of solutions to problems will come from right here in Kansas. We’re the pilot light.”

The goal for writing a new farm bill is to have it passed before the 2018 legislation expires at the end of September, Thompson said, adding expectations to “get this done in a bipartisan and bicameral way (both chambers of Congress).”

He added the importance to “bring voices from Kansas” to Congress, along with the rest of the nation.

“You don’t want to be writing any piece of legislation inside the bubble of Washington. When it comes to public policy, if you’re not at the table, you’re probably on the menu,” he said. “I’ve heard from the leadership on both sides (of the aisle). The farm bill should be unifying. I think we’re doing the right thing.”

The three essential ingredients to agriculture he said, are science, technology and innovation. It affects “not just American folks but has a positive impact around the world.”

Technology and timely service were among the topics from Matt Splitter who farms from Sterling to southern Ellsworth County. The Farm Service Agency is lending from $400 to $800 an acre to plant crops, he said, “It wouldn’t cover a very big operation, under a thousand acres. My concern, with the cost of production increasing, is FSA’s loan program keeping up with production costs.”

Paperwork has become cumbersome, he said, and local FSA offices are not equipped to turn a loan request around in less than 90 days.

“They have to expedite processes to become a relevant part of the picture,” Splitter said. “I made some of those comments based on a young beginning farmer. If a piece of land comes up for sale, I don’t have enough time to go to the bank and apply. If you have money, they’ll loan you money., If you don’t, you can kick rocks. How in the heck can young farmers get a start if there is no leniency? The banking picture today is not very friendly to young farmers.”

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As a member of the Federal Communications Commission Joint Rural Broadband Task Force, he was among those who stressed the need for improved internet service.

“If we want rural counties to thrive, broadband access is crucial,” Splitter said.

He drew a parallel between federal crop insurance and mental health.

“It kind of goes hand-in-hand right now,” he said. “With the certainty we have good crop insurance, it eases the mental health. Crop insurance is not intended to make you whole again but allows you to keep going in times of struggle.”

There were echoes to those comments, including from Rep. Mann’s older brother, Shane Mann, who farms near Quinter, in northwest Kansas.

“Crop insurance is something we can’t live without; 2.3 inches of rain since the first of the year is tough,” he said.

Mark Schlatter, vice president of lending at American AgCredit in Salina, Kansas, chimed in with agreement.

“As we work on the next farm bill, crop insurance remains our best risk management tool,” he said. “It’s imperative that crop insurance be strong.” 

“We need to address competition in agriculture and maintain the nutrition titles for so many folks in need,” said Nick Levendofsky, of Courtland, Kansas, executive director of Kansas Farmers Union. He also advocated for the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network supported by the National Farmers Union and a number of other farm and rural groups.

“How will (crop insurance) affect people with multiple years of drought and reduction in APH (actual production history) with declining levels in reservoirs and wells?” said Joe Newland, Kansas Farm Bureau president, of Neodesha.

“We have to protect these items with the farm bill,” he said. “It’s very important to get this right.”

There are a number of issues outside of the farm bill that also affects farmers, said Dave Spears, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at Mid-Kansas Cooperative of Moundridge, Kansas. He helped write two farm bills in 1990 and 1996 as a legislative assistant for the late Sen. Bob Dole.

“We need to be aware of some of the supply, logistical and transportation issues, and access to products, such as glyphosate. A large percentage of it is manufactured overseas,” Spears said. “We have a dependency on product availability from foreign countries.”

There is also a need to enhance the H2A program that allows overseas persons to work in the United States for nine months to cover labor shortages.

“The rules are out of date,” he said.

Haley Kottler, campaign director of the Kansas Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, snared some attention from the eastern-most microphone.

“I’m here to talk about SNAP,” she said. The acronym stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which accounts for the largest piece of the farm bill.

“SNAP is the largest anti-hunger and anti-poverty program we have here in America and it works very well,” she said. “I urged Chairman Thompson and Rep. Mann to keep SNAP strong in the 2023 farm bill. A strong bipartisan farm bill is important for agriculture and nutrition for all Kansans.”

The topic kept circling back to the dry times. Host Justin Knopf opened the session with prayer asking for guidance, and rain.

“It’s getting worse every day we don’t have moisture,” he said.

The farmer held up two stems of wheat in the boot stage of development, somewhat damaged by frost and dwarfed by drought.

“It’s gonna be a short crop despite having an increase in acres. My hopes aren’t that great,” Knopf said. “We’re in Level One of a drought here; 20 to 50 miles southwest of here, they’re in D2, D3 and D4.”

He mentioned a horde of bankers, educators, insurance agents, conservation officials and other experts in the crowd.

“Farmers don’t do it alone,” he said. “These are a group of people who are imperative to our success, incredibly important to our success.”

It’s a big deal to have the House Ag Committee chair in Kansas, Rahjes said.

“It shows Kansas is very much a player when it comes to what’s good in ag policy,” he said. “What we heard today is we have safety nets and we’re doing our best to keep folks on the farm. It’s good to have leaders on the ground, and for them to get a first-hand look is important. It stays with them as deliberations get underway in earnest.”

Praise was given to 20 FFA students from Southeast of Saline High School near Gypsum, who helped with parking, served refreshments, listened and learned. They were accompanied by school superintendent Roger Stump.

Tim Unruh can be reached at [email protected].