By Matt Reese
The American Farm Bureau once again proved to be among the more powerful forces in Washington, D.C. last year as a number of votes went the way of the grassroots decisions made by members around the country.
The power of Farm Bureau is its people and their efforts with legislators. For the 65th time, Ohio Farm Bureau county presidents congregated in Washington, D.C. to learn and teach, celebrate previous success and pave the way for a successful future in farm-related public policy.
“This is an opportunity for Ohio Farm Bureau to bring its county presidents to D.C. to have that direct one-on-one opportunity to impact and build relationships with not only those who we elect to represent us here but with the agencies that affect what happens on our farms,” said Brent Porteus, Ohio Farm Bureau president. “We had a lot of discussion on the estate tax here last year and we did get a two-year bill achieving our goals. We spent a lot of time discussing the cap and trade situation and obviously got a positive outcome with regard to the Farm Bureau policy on that issue. And then there is the food safety issue. We did get a food safety bill last year and we were able to get things in that bill to make it work for Ohio farmers.”
The group discussed a number of important issues with their Senators and Representatives. The most common themes throughout the three-day visit were over-reaching regulatory efforts from the Environmental Protection Agency, the budget and the farm bill and trade.
The EPA is getting chastised from agriculture and Congress (from both sides of the aisle) about the continued efforts to regulate everything from dust to the climate, mostly based on court precedents. There are a number of efforts underway in Congress to reign in the EPA, including a bill introduced from Ohio Representatives.
“Because of a bad court decision, you have the government regulating pesticides when they are registered and then also coming back and requiring farmers to get a permit when they want to apply a product or be covered underneath a general permit. It is a duplication of regulation,” said Adam Sharp, senior director of legislative policy for OFBF. “HR 872 is a bill that two of our terrific Ohio Representatives, Congressman Bob Gibbs and Congresswoman Jean Schmidt, introduced in Congress and it has a number of co-sponsors. We’re here pushing that bill that will fix that court mess that was going to put more regulatory burden on farmers.”
There are bills, or plans to introduce bills, directed at addressing EPA efforts to regulate greenhouse gas and water total maximum daily load as well.
“We need to reign in the EPA and other agencies. I suspect that there will be hearings every single week with the EPA director, including with the Ag Committee,” said Rep. John Boehner, Speaker of the House. “There are an endless number of regulations coming out of this Administration. I think that if Congress was working on these rules, there would be a lot fewer rules.”
There are three free trade agreements that, if implemented, would represent nearly $2.5 billion in additional U.S. exports. The stalling trade agreements with Panama, Columbia and South Korea are costing U.S. agriculture huge losses in potential exports and lost market share as other countries fill in the void with their agricultural products. There is also work on a Trans-Pacific Partnership between the U.S. and a number of Pacific countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and possibly Japan.
“Exports make up between a third and a fourth of the agricultural receipts in the U.S. Ag is the only place in the U.S. economy where we have a trade surplus and not a deficit,” said Rosemarie Watkins, director of the International Policy Team for the American Farm Bureau. “Trade to Columbia is dropping very rapidly and U.S. agricultural goods are being displaced very rapidly. This situation is only going to get worse. If you look at the number of free trade agreements around the world, other countries are moving into markets that are traditionally ours. Meanwhile, our country waits.”
These countries and other developing countries are particularly important for the future of agricultural trade.
“The emerging economies are coming out of the recession much more quickly than the developed nations, which is why they are important for our future,” Watkins said. “There was a time when America was the breadbasket of the world. We produced the food and other countries bought it. That is no longer true. We really have to remain aggressive in this country if we are to maintain the trade surplus.”
Free trade agreements are also important because the World Trade Organization Doha negotiations are still stalled, making separate trade agreements between individual countries the only viable way to move forward.
Budget and the farm bill
With a soaring national debt, funding will be the driving force behind every decision in D.C.
“Everything in this town is going to be about how much does it cost and how do I pay for it? In agriculture, we want to do our fair share for the budget, but we do not want to do more than our fair share,” said Mary Kay Thatcher, farm policy specialist for the American Farm Bureau. “We’re going to hit the debt ceiling pretty soon, probably around the first of May, and they will have to raise it, but they are also going to get serious about debt reduction. That is when budget issues are going to get serious for the issues that are near and dear to our hearts in agriculture.”
With the budget in mind, Thatcher thinks that payment limits will likely be a part of the farm bill discussion. In addition, legislators will be looking at the biggest areas of spending in farm programs — direct payments, farmer premium subsidies for crop insurance and Conservation Reserve Program, Conservation Security Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
In the farm bill funding debate, though, there are important things legislators need to remember.
“The agriculture budget has increased with the rest of federal spending, but the spending increases have almost entirely increased within the area of nutrition and free lunch programs. Other areas of increase in the farm bill are in conservation and in crop insurance, though these areas have not increased at nearly the same rate as the rest of the federal budget,” Thatcher said. “Ag is also the only sector that has already given up some existing funding in cuts.”
She also pointed out that gross margin insurance programs are gaining traction, particularly for dairy.
“Every farm bill has something new. This new thing will be gross margin insurance programs and the dairy folks have been most in the lead on this,” Thatcher said. “The dairy groups are suggesting doing away with existing programs and moving to a gross margin program that considers price of milk and price of grain for feed to figure gross margins. You get some margin free and if you need more you can buy insurance. It won’t insure every loss, but it will insure one loss. In the case of dairy, it would be feed costs. Rice, wheat growers, pork and beef producers are also considering this. But dairy already has a pot of money, others do not have that pot.”
The House Agriculture Committee has a tough job in front of it and waiting for a farm bill would be a positive for agriculture, according to Frank Lucas, who chairs the committee.
“We have the out of control federal deficit and if we wrote a farm bill right now, there is absolutely no money to work with. By the same token, we have some of the highest commodity prices ever. That’s not a permanent issue, but we will get torn to shreds,” he said. “We need to let the farm bill run its regular five-year course, which is next July. By then, commodity prices will probably be closer to more historic levels. And, hopefully the federal budget will improve and we’ll be in a better position. Plus, we have 23 of 46 members of the committee who have never been in this process before. We’ve got to work through some issues and get educated together so we can work together as a team next year when we write this farm bill reauthorization. Then, maybe we can take this sack of lemons we’ve been given with this budget and make some lemonade.”