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Panel discusses hurdles to passing new farm bill

Farm bill debates will be influenced by funding, nutrition assistance, current events and partisan politics.
Carol Ryan Dumas

Capital Press

Published on February 19, 2018 10:29AM

Finding funding for current farm bill programs will be the biggest factor in upcoming debates over the new legislation, Craig Jagger, former chief economist for the House Agriculture Committee, says.

He took part in a forum last week that was sponsored by the Farm Foundation, an agricultural policy institute. Jagger was one several professionals involved in deliberations over past farm bills who discussed the issues in play for the next farm bill.

The Congressional Budget Office’s baseline for agriculture is the only certain source of funds for the next farm bill, and it’s not enough to fund all the current farm bill programs, he said.

Thirty-seven current provisions and programs have no baseline funding after 2018. Not only is the budget situation tighter for this farm bill, but so are the budget rules. The House and Senate agriculture committees will be lucky if they can maintain current funding, he said.

Patrick Westhoff, director of the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri, said one of the biggest issues is whether lawmakers can find a compromise on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that would pass. SNAP is seen as a key to gaining farm bill support from urban members of Congress.

Joe Outlaw, co-director of the Agricultural and Food Policy center at Texas A&M University, said uncertainty over current events will also be a big factor.

Trade relations with China are high on the list. Renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, immigration reform, welfare reform and the primary and November elections could also divert congressional attention, he said.

Farmer and former Indiana Farm Bureau President Don Villwock — who also served as a state executive director of the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service and a liaison to former U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar — said politics are going to be the biggest factor in the current highly partisan environment.

Crop insurance is the No. 1 topic in the heartland, and farmers are hearing all kinds of stories of what might happen to crop insurance, he said.

“We are extremely, extremely nervous,” he said.

USDA is predicting farm income will go down 6.7 percent this year and be the lowest since 2006. Farmers growing many commodities are struggling with breakeven or below breakeven prices, and that makes bankers nervous. Bankers are already struggling to make cash flows work for farmers, and crop insurance is not voluntary in that equation, he said.

“Crop insurance is a safety net not only for farmers but for rural America. It’s critical that the Hill keeps that in mind in the discussions,” he said.

Many in Congress are concerned with farm consolidation and without economically viable crop insurance, farms will continue to fail and consolidation will increase quicker, he said.

“That’s counter to most of the goals of any farm bill for many years,” he said.

Multiple decisions on the farm involve long-term plans, such as equipment purchases, irrigation systems and conservation projects. And they come with big price tags and five- to seven-year loans, he said.

Banks and financial institutions making those loans need some guarantee they’re going to get paid, and farmers need to know there’s some kind of a safety net so they can move forward, he said.


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