Commentary: Deadline nears for farm bill conference committee


Issue Date: September 12, 2018
By Josh Rolph
Josh Rolph
Current legislation authorizing federal farm programs expires Sept. 30. A conference committee has been working to reconcile very different versions of a new farm bill adopted by the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Photo/Ching Lee

With the intensity of election season increasing, Congress reconvened this month to deliberate high-stakes issues—including the first meeting of the farm bill conference committee charged with reconciling two very different House and Senate-passed farm bills before the current bill expires Sept. 30.

Though the last several farm bills relied on temporary extensions before crossing the finish line, House and Senate agriculture committee leaders want to act this month because less funding would be available should the current bill be extended. The bill must be mostly finalized and agreed to by the conference committee this week in order to have it passed on time, but there are some big barriers in the way.

Republicans, who for the first time have written a farm bill while holding both chambers of Congress and the presidency, went bold in the House with an effort to strengthen work requirements for able-bodied adults who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or food stamp benefits. The Senate-passed bill was far less controversial. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, has offered a SNAP concession to conference leaders but talks continue.

There are many areas in the bill that will be consequential in California, and they affect different producers, commodities and regions differently. Here are some examples of farm bill issues we're tracking in the California Farm Bureau Federation Federal Policy Department:

A significant sticking point to the farm portion of the bill will be the conservation title, where the House put more of a focus on working lands programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which CFBF supports, while the Senate reduced overall conservation funding.

The commodity title of the farm bill preserves the Average Risk Coverage and Price Loss Coverage options for program crops, as CFBF requested. But the dairy provisions continue to fail California, as CFBF has informed our elected officials and committees.

We have joined with animal agriculture groups in support of the House bill's proposed Animal Disease Preparedness and Response Program, which would guard against animal disease and provide a national vaccine bank; both bills increase funding for the National Animal Health Lab Network.

Both versions of the bill tackle trade in similar fashion, by combining the Market Access Program with other trade programs such as Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops. In response to recent tariffs, CFBF asked that the administration's trade aid package direct more funds to these proven trade programs. Because the assistance funds prioritized other areas, we have joined with the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance in calling for more farm-bill funding for these trade programs.

The rural development title of the farm bill funds broadband expansion, water treatment programs and energy savings, and includes a new House provision aimed to meet health crises such as the rising opioid epidemic. But rural California counties qualify for little of the funding because of the federal definition of "rural." We support clarifying the "rural" definition by census tract, which would go a long way toward bringing more rural development funds to our state.

CFBF was successful in advocating for mechanization research priority language in the House and Senate bills, with the Senate bill offering our preferred path forward. Scientific research advances are needed to address both the existing and predicted shortages of agricultural employees.

Other research priorities include combating the Asian citrus psyllid and HLB, supporting the Senate funding increase for organic research and the Senate bill's enhancement of urban agriculture.

For forestry issues, CFBF has long supported greater flexibility to manage forestland properly. The farm bill has traditionally carried a few programs related to forests, and one of our requests was that "Good Neighbor Authority" be enhanced to allow states to perform road construction and maintenance, which has been signed into law as part of this year's appropriations bill.

CFBF has also advocated for the president to be able to declare an emergency for an insect and disease epidemic. Once trees die from insect and disease, they have a usable lumber value for approximately four months, which is not enough time to complete the regulatory process for removal.

In the horticulture title, fruit, vegetable, nut and nursery growers stand to benefit because the Specialty Crop Block Grant and the Plant Pest and Disease Management programs would continue at current funding levels. CFBF supports House language easing the regulatory burdens associated with pesticide registration, but it is difficult to see a way to achieve 60 approving votes in the Senate.

California specialty crop growers should be aware of proposed crop insurance programs that could allow for more risk management products to help insure against crop losses. CFBF supports retaining the Whole Farm Revenue Protection program and appreciates the Senate's approach to incentivize agents for enrollments in what can be a complicated sign-up process.

There are dozens more programs being considered by the conference committee and a short amount of time before the existing bill expires. Just as no party wants the blame for a government shutdown in an election year, the same can be said for lack of a farm bill in farm country.

CFBF will continue working to ensure California farmers and ranchers are well-represented in the next version of the farm bill.

(Josh Rolph is manager of federal policy 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.