By Matt Reese
Ohio Farm Bureau’s county presidents flooded Capitol Hill this week with their message of how farms in Ohio — and their farms specifically — are impacted with federal policy decisions.
“It is so easy for all of us to take our food system and agricultural industry for granted. It is so important here at Capitol Hill for our farmer leaders to come out and tell their stories to help educate the leaders here in Washington about the challenges facing Ohio agriculture and what is happening on our farms,” said Jack Irvin, with the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation (OFBF). “Having that personal story makes it so much more real than some white piece of paper that has a bunch of facts listed on it. When you have a real-life person telling a real-life story, it is something you can remember and understand a lot more easily than some generic talking point from a generic lobbyist.”
The county presidents start the trip with an overview of the policy issues from the experts before meeting with legislators. Top of mind for every farmer is the struggling farm economy and American Farm Bureau Federation chief economist John Newton provided an overview of the numbers and projections for 2019 and beyond.
“Early projections on farm income in 2019 are about $69 billion. That is up about 10%, but remains in inflation-adjusted dollars among the lowest 25% we’ve seen in nearly 100 years, so it is still a pretty challenging time. We will see production expenses come down a little as people tighten their belts and folks figure a way to make it through on tighter margins,” Newton said. “Total asset values in ag are over $3 trillion. In the 80s we had about $775 billion in ag assets, so we have a much bigger asset base than we had the last time we were in these tough conditions. Land values and cash rents have been relatively stable in recent years despite the fact that a lot of commodity prices are 40% to 50% below where they were back in ‘11, ‘12 and ’13. How much longer land values can maintain their strong position remains uncertain.”
Changes in trade — including the revised North American Free Trade Agreement (USMCA) — could make or break the farm economy in coming months.
“I think 2019 trade could be a game changer. I think we could get something done with China. Word on the street is that in late March there could be some sort of memorandum of understanding on trade with China,” Newton said. “We can get USMCA across the finish line sometime by the summer, do a bi-lateral with Japan, and get ag included in an EU trade agreement and we could come out like gangbusters. At the same time we could see additional tariffs levied on our products that provide even more headwinds. It could be a winner or a loser.”
Regulatory reform is another important topic that the county Farm Bureau presidents discussed with lawmakers this week. Paul Schlegel, managing director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation, provided some highlights, including a re-vamped and improved version of the controversial Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule.
“We are talking about the new clean water rule that the EPA proposed. It was informally unveiled back in December. The comment period ends on April 15. We are in the process of letting people know that it is out there, that the comment period is open and they are free to comment to the agency, and to make sure they register their comments. This rule that has been proposed comes far closer, we feel, to congressional intent and the meaning of the law than the old rule did. It is much better for farmers and ranchers so we want to make sure we can get the rules promulgated, finalized and put on the books as quickly as we can get them there,” Schlegel said. “There is also legislation on Capitol Hill that deals with agricultural labor. We expect some bills to be introduced in the near future that would have a new guest worker program. We expect the U.S. Department of Labor to issue a proposal sometime in the next month or two that would revise the H-2A program. We are hoping to see something that would make it easier for farmers, more accessible and less bureaucratic. We do expect improvements.”
Other priorities include monitoring the implementation of the farm bill, infrastructure improvements, and broadband in rural America.
“There is no shortage of things we are working on at the moment,” Schlegel said.
The trip makes for a long, but rewarding, three days for those who attend.
“It is a lot of good people who come out here to try to make a difference for everybody back home,” said Dustin Converse, the Union County Farm Bureau president. “I look forward to getting to meet the representatives and senators and getting to talk to them and voice our opinions.”