Addressing the great Farm Bill debate
Farmers, senators, ag leaders tackle tough topics at 2017 Iowa Ag Summit
DES MOINES — While some lawmakers like U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley think Congress could pass a new Farm Bill by Christmas, other ag leaders are less confident.
One thing is clear, though. Since no new funding with will be included in the 2018 Farm Bill, existing and proposed programs must compete for the same money.
“One of my top priorities will be protecting crop insurance,” said U.S. Sen. Joni Enrst, who spoke at the 2017 Iowa Ag Summit in Des Moines on Aug. 5 at the Iowa Events Center.
Ernst’s remarks were well received by ag leaders who also tend to agree on another issue — while agriculture needs to be part of budget deficit reduction efforts, don’t demand that farmers bear the burden of solving the federal government’s budget challenges. “The whole Farm Bill is less than 2 percent of the total federal budget,” said Gary Wertish, Minnesota Farmers Union president, who spoke at the summit. “You can’t balance the federal budget on the backs of the farmers.”
Conservation programs’ unintended consequences
Ag leaders and politicians also agree that the next Farm Bill will need innovative solutions and flexibility. One topic of discussion during the ag summit included the Soil Health and Income Protection Program (SHIPP) proposal by Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota. This new, voluntary Farm Bill program would provide a short-term option to conserve acreage while protecting farm income.
Unlike the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which requires a long-term commitment of 10 to 15 years, SHIPP would require only a three-to-five-year commitment. SHIPP would also give farmers the flexibility they need to enroll their least productive acreage in this new program in return for a rental payment and additional crop insurance assistance. “It’s an interesting proposal,” said Craig Lang, a dairy producer from Brooklyn and past president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation who spoke on the Farm Bill panel at the Iowa Ag Summit.
CRP also sparked a discussion about the inefficient use of taxpayer dollars that are harmful to young and beginning farmers who need land to get started. The inefficient use of tax dollars also hurts Iowa’s rural communities when good farmland is taken out of production.
“I’ve seen the government’s pollinator program pay $360 an acre in Poweshiek County on good farmland,” said Lang, who values pollinators but has concerns about idling productive farmland. “The federal government should not be in the business of funding programs that are the opposite of what a free market should be.”
Wertish has seen examples where landowners put entire farms in CRP. “The landowners got a higher rental rate through CRP than what they got to farm the land or rent it out,” he said. “We need to target these conservation dollars more.”
Ernst pointed out that many of Iowa’s counties with the highest poverty levels also have the most land set aside in conservation programs. Decatur County, where more than 20 percent of the population falls below the poverty level, has 26.6 percent of its cropland in CRP, she noted.
“We need to target conservation dollars at marginal acres without putting aside productive farmland,” Ernst stressed.
Conservation also came up during a panel discussion when Dr. Wendy Wintersteen, Endowed Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State University, made the case for more permanent conservation practices.
“Cover crops are great and play an important role, but more permanent structures like wetlands give more permanent solutions for addressing water quality issues.”
The challenge is to get enough of these permanent structures on the land to make a significant difference. “These conservation practices are expensive,” Wintersteen said. “There has to be a public investment in these permanent practices.”
Payment limits needed, say panelists
Funding discussions also turned to the issue of payment limits. Grassley has pushed for enforceable farm payment limits to be included in federal deficit reduction talks.
“I think it’s important to cover the first 2,000 acres of production, since that’s a viable size of farming operation for a young family, especially if they have livestock,” Lang said. “If you choose to farm 10,000 acres, I don’t think the government should guarantee you an income on the additional 8,000 acres.”
Wertish agreed with the need for payment limits. “This would help spread the money around,” he said.
Trade remains vital to ag
While farm payments need limits, according to some panelists, ag exports offer unlimited opportunities and remain one of the bright spots in the ag economy.
“One in five jobs in Iowa depend on exports,” Ernst said. “As we renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, it’s essential to Iowa, since Mexico is a top market for our corn, pork and beef.”
The U.S. also must negotiate new bi-lateral trade agreements with Japan, which is another key export market for many Iowa commodities, said Ernst, who added that the benefits of trade extend beyond the economy. “Trade is vital to our national security. I firmly believe that good trade partners make good friends.”
Now’s the time to build these partnerships, especially in Asia. “If we don’t engage with other countries, China will fill the gap,” shesaid.
Supporting the RFS and renewable fuels
The U.S. government also needs to fill some gaps when it comes to supporting home-grown fuels, added Ernst, who supports the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS).
Under the RFS, oil refiners are required to blend renewable fuel into America’s transportation fuel supply. This is called the point of obligation. It has been working well for years, say ethanol industry supporters, and it ensures that consumers have a choice of fuel at the gas pump.
There has been a push, however, to move the point of obligation from a handful of refiners to hundreds or thousands of small fuel retailers. If the point of obligation shifts, it would derail the RFS and mean fewer choices for consumers, Ernst said.
“I’m against shifting the RFS’ point of obligation, since this would only cause confusion,” she said.
Share your stories
From renewable fuels to international trade, it’s important for farmers to stay in touch with their federal lawmakers, especially as the next Farm Bill takes shape.
“The last administration made it challenging for farmers to supply safe, affordable food,” Ernst said. “As we continue to roll back over-burdensome regulations like Waters of the U.S., we need to hear your concerns. Then I can share these with others on the Senate Ag Committee and lawmakers who are far removed from rural America.”
Personal stories remain the most powerful way to make an impact, she added. “Tell me your stories. They’re essential as we work to create a new Farm Bill.”