Commentary: Farm Bureau efforts help to shape 2018 Farm Bill


Issue Date: April 25, 2018
By Josh Rolph
Josh Rolph
The House Agriculture Committee marks up the 2018 Farm Bill during a hearing on Capitol Hill. Now that the committee has approved the bill, it is expected to reach the House floor by mid-May.
Photo/Sara Neagu-Reed

Early collaboration and preparation helped to produce a House farm bill that includes many Farm Bureau priorities as the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018, H.R. 2, passed the House Agriculture Committee.

The bill passed last week with strong opposition from the Democratic minority committee members, who ended negotiations about a month ago after they saw a Republican reform proposal for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as the food stamp program. The proposal would change existing work requirements for able-bodied adults ages 18-59. During committee markup, each Democratic member spoke out against the proposal.

The Agriculture Committee is a diverse one, a place where rural and urban interests meet. Typically, these varying interests work well together, each advancing their separate issues to get what they want. But this markup was different. The interests collided, and the resulting tension was on full display.

Although the farm bill has passed on a party-line vote before, many commentators have remarked on the stark national partisan shift between agricultural and rural areas, now predominantly represented by Republicans, and the urban areas with the highest number of SNAP recipients, almost all held by Democrats.

This wasn't always the case.

The farm bill once played out regional agricultural interests that were not necessarily partisan. It featured jockeying between Midwest row crops and Southern rice and sugar cane growers, while Northern and Northeastern dairies competed. Congressional members from urban districts helped to carry the bill for its inclusion of nutrition programs.

With the expansion of conservation programs in the 1980s and '90s, Western states began to see more benefit. The modern-day emphasis on specialty crops, research, forestry and rural development has resulted in greater interest from Californians and states such as Florida, Arizona and Michigan.

The clash we are witnessing today is a result of Republican agricultural members stepping on Democratic urban members' turf. How this plays out remains to be seen.

To summarize the agricultural provisions in the House committee-passed bill, not much changes for program crops in this post-direct-payment era. The 2014 bill's safety net options of either the Agricultural Risk Coverage or Price Loss Coverage program would continue. Disaster programs for livestock remain largely unchanged, and risk management tools would be open to more farmers and ranchers.

The House bill contains a greater emphasis on conservation on working lands, by paring down Conservation Reserve Program funding and bolstering the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, while also adding new language that promotes safe drinking water.

In a change from previous farm bills, there would be mandatory spending for trade programs such as the successful private-public partnership of the Market Access Program. Specialty crop and some organic programs would continue, as well as regulatory relief measures for pesticide use.

Not included in the bill, but important for California, is an improved definition of "rural." Any improvements to the farm bill's rural programs cannot be fully realized in California, because current definitions do not accommodate our rural communities situated in geographically large counties that become disqualified when a large city is located within the county.

Struggling California dairies also face challenges not addressed in the existing farm bill or the committee-passed bill. Unlike their competitors in other states, California dairies don't receive any price supports. California single-handedly produces 20 percent of the nation's milk supply, but when milk prices fall and input costs rise, farm bill programs such as the Margin Protection Program don't work for our dairy farmers. Aware of the high cost of a workable program and the political realities, we are looking into other avenues to assist dairy families, including working with the American Farm Bureau Federation as it develops an insurance program and implementing California milk standards nationwide.

To address the long-term employment needs of California farms and ranches, we seek mechanization language and dedicated funding in the Specialty Crops Research Initiative.

And for our nation's forests, we have advocated for language that would grant the president authority to declare an emergency for an insect and disease epidemic.

We now expect the full House to take up the committee's version of the farm bill as early as the first half of May. In the Senate, Agriculture, Nutrition, & Forestry Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., is expected to introduce his version of the bill shortly thereafter. If the Senate is able to consider a bill by Memorial Day, a conference committee could prepare a bill for passage in both chambers well before the Sept. 30 expiration of current law.

The fact that the farm bill has taken on the priority bill number of H.R. 2 shows the attention Speaker Paul Ryan is giving it. He sees the changes to SNAP as a legacy item. He'll likely hit a roadblock on his proposals in conference committee, as the Senate is unlikely to go as far in its version, but we could still see a farm bill passed before the end of the year.

There's no doubt Farm Bureau's continued farm bill advocacy is making a difference, and many opportunities remain to affect the bill. Make sure you're a member of the FARM TEAM® to be updated on the bill as well as to make your voice heard. To learn more about FARM TEAM, see www.cfbf.com/farmteam.

(Josh Rolph is Federal Policy manager for the California Farm Bureau Federation. He may be contacted at jrolph@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.