Wednesday the House Agriculture Committee held its fourth listening session Aug. 30 on the sidelines of the Farm Progress Show in central Illinois. As the committee gears up to put all the pieces together in the upcoming months for writing the farm bill, a few nuggets were revealed from the opportunity to hear from farmers and those impacted by the farm bill.
As we look into the finalizing of the bill, here are five topics that likely could prove important or beneficial moving ahead.
Crop insurance was easily the most commonly mentioned request during the over three hours of 2-minute testimonies provided. Several farmers discussed the effective safety net which has offered them a cushion when disaster strikes on their farm ranging from replants after floods, hail storms or droughts.
Linda Carleton, a farmer from Illinois, said she opposes any measure to reduce the premium assistance currently provided to farms. “Premium assistance encourages expanding of coverage options from green beans to soybeans,” she said. “Removing established farmers is doing the same thing as healthy people from crop insurance.”
Richard Guebert, Jr., who farms near Ellis Grove, Ill., and serves as president of the Illinois Farm Bureau, added that crop insurance works best with high levels of participation. “We must avoid means testing. It would reduce the pool and soundness of these programs.”
A fifth generation farmer from Iowa added enterprise units are more affordable and easier to manage on the farm and should remain. Dave Janson, president of Strategic Farm Marketing in Champaign, Ill., said products such as whole farm insurance is gaining traction. He also warned against eliminating the harvest price as it is critical especially for livestock farmers. “It allows farmers to forward contract without fear of overselling their crop,” Janson said.
In a press conference following the session, House Agriculture Committee chairman Mike Conaway recognized, “The most consistent thing they said all day was, ‘Don’t mess with crop insurance,’” he said.
FMD vaccine bank
A handful of those who testified at the hearing called for funding for a foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) vaccine bank. It is one of the National Pork Producers Council’s top priorities and NPPC President Ken Maschhoff of Illinois was one of the first to ask for it during the session. The cost to build up vaccine supplies in case of an outbreak would be $150 million, compared to the $200 billion over 10 years which could result if a case occurs.
Maschhoff said establishing the vaccine bank would adequately protect the livestock sectors. “In doing so, the U.S. economy all understand it’s not just agriculture at stake, but the entire economy as a whole.”
Heather Hampton Knodle, on behalf of the American Agri-Women, said the funding is necessary, and an easy offset for the program is by offsetting those costs from the organic program. “The funding is there. We should not be telling people one production practice is better than another.”
Later on in the session, a young organic farmer pointed out that the organic cost share program is a “drop in the bucket compared to all the funding in conventional agriculture” and organic funding should be expanded, not diverted back towards conventional agriculture.
Interestingly, later in the day I was speaking with John Heisdorffer, who serves on the board of directors for the American Soybean Association. He farms 1,000 acres in southeastern Iowa and finishes 10,000 hogs. As a member of ASA and a hog producer I thought he would be a shared champion of the FMD goal, however, he said he hadn’t heard mention of it prior. It makes one wonder whether the livestock and commodity groups have shared their main goals heading into the debate.
Role of conservation
It appears the discussion of working lands versus idled conservation efforts will again be prominent going forward. Chip Bowling, past president of the National Corn Growers Association who farms in the Chesapeake Bay, said adequate funding must be maintained for conservation programs and ones that are based on sound science and performance driven. NCGA is seeking to have Title 2 (conservation title) funds targeted towards the most environmentally effected areas for Conservation Reserve Program idling, and also supports advancing efforts on working lands and supporting cost-share programs.
Several farmers also noted the importance of incentivizing producers with a carrot rather than a stick to reduce nutrients and encourage proper nutrient management. Steve Stierwalt, farmer from Champaign, Ill., said he’s seeking the farm bill to help with a market approach to conservation. With a growing push on marketers to offer an identifier on how it is raised it could help farmers take the next step in conservation.
He explained in addition to the push of cost-shares, developing a pull method to use bulk commodities that were sustainably raised could be more fruitful instead of trying to get farmers to do things they don’t understand well to receive cost-share. “Let’s develop a market where farmers want long-term sustainable way of getting conservation done,” Stierwalt said.
Earlier this year the President proposed eliminating funding for the two hallmark USDA programs for the expansion of foreign markets: the Market Access Program (MAP) and the Foreign Market Development program (FMD).
During the listening session Maschhoff was the first to call for funding levels to be maintained for market access development programs.
“Foreign markets are so critical to the products that we raise,” added Ron Moore, who farms near Roseville, Ill., and serves as president of ASA. “We need a robust trade title that supports foreign market development and strengthens market access programs.”
John Williams, a farmer from southeast Illinois, quoted former president John F. Kennedy: “The farmer is the only man in our economy who buys everything at retail, sells everything at wholesale, and pays the freight both ways.”
Williams and others shared the upcoming farm bill needs to be done without a budget ax hanging over legislators. “We need a strong farm bill written at a tough time,” he said, adding the reauthorization needs to be done on time. “I deal with enough uncertainty.”
Moore echoed the sentiment that a strong farm bill should be the goal. Things need to be addressed and not addressed out of a necessity of what should be on the chopping block.
House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson joked that between himself and Conaway, who are both certified public accountants, will make sure the farm bill math pencils out. “This is maybe the first time in Congress that two CPAs have chaired a committee,” he said. “Maybe for once we’ll get the numbers right.”