Farm revenue insurance is the best rationale for farm bill spending if congress sticks to its newfound zeal to curb federal spending. So say two well-respected policy wonks who have been thinking and writing about farm policy for many years now.
"Farmers must explain to the public that Ag is inherently risky, that revenue comes from price times yield, neither of which is under a farmer's control," says Bob Thompson (left), senior policy fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. "It's highly capital intensive – more than twice that of manufacturing. If there's a justification for public money going into Ag, it's for a revenue insurance program in light of all this high volatility."
Gary Blumenthal says that approach would make sense if Ag needs to 'circle the wagons' in a policy shootout.
"The fall back position for Ag is, you have to take all the money that is available and make sure you at least have some form of revenue insurance," says Blumenthal, CEO and president of World Perspectives, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm.
But right now, farmers are more concerned about burdensome EPA regulations than the next farm bill says Blumenthal (pictured below). Regulatory efforts, such as pesticide permitting, proposed dust limitations and proposed expanded federal controls in the Clean Air Act, should be top of mind for agriculture.
In the latest skirmish, ag groups sent a letter last week asking every senator to block passage of S. 1816, the Chesapeake Clean Water and Ecosystem Restoration Act. Farm groups fear there will be an attempt to attach the legislation, which includes major reforms to the Clean Water Act, into a more innocuous bill on water issues.
The organizations that oppose the bill said it "would set a major legislative precedent in federal environmental law, taking the authority and control granted to states and local government under the Clean Water Act and instead vesting it in the Environmental Protection Agency." The end result would, in effect, make "EPA the pre-eminent land use authority in the nation."
The Obama administration got its head handed to it in the elections, partly due to overreach with unpopular reforms like health care. But that may not slow EPA's own overreach. Frances Beinecke, chairman of the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Republicans coming to Washington "…not to listen to folks who voted them in on a cresting wave of economic ire." According to Gary Baise, lawyer, farmer and blogger at this site, Beinecke believes the agency's regulatory fervor will continue. "We are going to get there with Congress or without Congress," she says.
But politics might get in the NRDC's way. "If EPA's proposed regulations go forward, the rules will begin to kick in just about the time Obama comes up for election," Blumenthal says, "and industry will point out that they will not hire people because of these rules."
Former House Ag Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., has been outspoken in his desire to limit EPA regulations. So will we see an environmental title in the next farm bill? Provisions have been added here and there over the past several bills.
"In 2008 the environmentalists got fooled when the aggies did an end run," says Blumenthal, former chief of staff for USDA Secretary Clayton Yeutter. "The environmentalists will be better equipped this time. It will be a matter of who is in charge in congress."
Meanwhile the European Union is reforming its Ag policy to focus more on environmental benefits after 2013. In Europe there was significant environmental push – and heavy farmer pushback, but it appears to be the way forward in Europe. Will The U.S. follow?
"We have in other areas, like animal welfare, but we haven't in GMO," says Blumenthal. "They are a place to look for directional guidance."