Farm bill policy and politics were discussed in depth at a farm bill forum held Feb. 15 during the National Farm Machinery Show at the Kentucky Expo Center in Louisville.
Kentucky First District Congressman James Comer joined with Joe Cain, Kentucky Farm Bureau's commodity division director, and Sam Willett, senior director of public policy for the National Corn Growers Association, to talk about the progress made in crafting new farm program legislation, as well as the difficulty yet remaining to get final approval of the measure by both houses of Congress.
The forum was sponsored by the Agribusiness Industry Network and attended by a cross section of farm leaders and agribusiness representatives from around the state.
Comer, who addressed the group by phone hookup from Washington, is Kentucky's only representative on the House Agriculture Committee, which has primary responsibility for writing the legislation.
He said the process had been slowed considerably by Congress's work on other topics, primarily health care and immigration. But despite the legislative logjam, Comer expects farm bill legislation could be approved by the committee at some point during April.
He reported that key elements of the new legislation will closely mirror provisions of the current programs, including the areas of crop insurance, safety net features and conservation programs.
Some changes could be expected in dairy provisions, he said, noting that dairy policy has been a difficult area to address given the current milk price levels and their impact on dairy farmers.
The most contentious subject matter falls on the nutrition title of the bill, Comer said, where the committee is proposing major changes to the federal food stamp program, including a work requirement for some recipients.
He noted these proposals will likely meet opposition from urban representatives, while the farm support provisions aren't popular with some conservative lawmakers. The diverse nature of the opposition means that the House floor vote may be very close, with a one or two vote margin likely to determine the outcome.
Comer has been given responsibility by House leadership to help convince his reluctant colleagues to support the measure and round up yes votes to win final approval. He says many House members come from districts where there is little to no farming, unlike the Senate where every member has substantial numbers of ag constituents.
Joe Cain, who directs Farm Bureau's national affairs activities, echoed Comer's comments on the tough road ahead for the vital farm program legislation. He said as many as 200 of the 435 members of the U.S. House have virtually no agriculture in their districts.
But on the plus side, he noted, that means the farm bill will truly be a bipartisan measure with critical support expected from both Democrats and Republicans. Conversely, the opposition will come from both parties as well.
Cain acknowledged that current low commodity prices are doing substantial damage to farmers as well as the agribusinesses that provide their machinery and equipment. In today's price environment, he said, the income support features of the farm bill are much more critical than was the case when the current farm bill was enacted.
Overall net farm income today is only half the levels enjoyed when that measure was voted into law.
Sam Willett, a native Kentuckian with substantial Congressional experience, says crop insurance is the area of most importance for corn growers, but is also the biggest target for House members who want to slash federal spending, also known as deficit hawks.
Projections that commodity prices aren't likely to improve much in the near future pose a stark reality for all grain farmers, especially those who are young and/or highly leveraged. Without some level of price or income assurance, some producers may have trouble in the future getting their production loans renewed, Willett said.
He noted that some farm bill critics are pushing to disqualify the largest volume producers from the crop insurance program. But he said those larger-scale farmers are the lowest risk group, and that excluding them would almost certainly increase premiums for small to mid-size producers.
He also noted the importance of strong export market promotion programs, stressing that each dollar spent drumming up overseas sales returns up to $24 in additional sales volume.
To follow progress on the Farm Bill, see the House Committee on Agriculture website. https://agriculture.house.gov/
Gary Huddleston | AIN Chairman