Organic Broadcaster

2018 not year for big improvements in Farm Bill

By Nick Levendofsky, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union

The stark difference between the 2014 Farm Bill and the 2018 Farm Bill is that the former was written during much better economic times for agriculture and rural America. Commodity prices were higher, and farmers were spending money because they were making money. That is not the case, now, as Congress writes and works on the 2018 legislation. Wisconsin is currently losing 1.5 dairies a day – 390 in 2016 and 500 in 2017. Historically low commodity prices and high input costs mixed with uncertainty in trade, plus extreme weather variability have pushed the issue to crisis mode.

It’s time for a reality check: 2018 will not be the year for a “revolutionary” Farm Bill. As much as we would like to see significant changes, it’s just not going to happen in this Congress and in this current economic climate. This will be a status quo Farm Bill. Expect modest changes designed to improve the current Farm Bill and offer language that provides producers consistency and transparency, along with better on-time payment performance.

Many of the members of Congress who voted for the 2014 Farm Bill are no longer in office because they either voluntarily retired or were “retired” by voters in 2016. The Senate Agriculture Committee has 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats, while 26 Republicans and 19 Democrats serve on the House Agriculture Committee. The margins are fairly tight, so these folks have to work together in a bipartisan effort to pass legislation. If, for some reason, the Farm Bill discussions go through 2018 past the November election, and we see some changes in either one or both houses, we’ll see some new faces/leaders on these committees. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) is the current chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) is the ranking member. Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX) is the current chairman of the House Agriculture Committee and Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN) is the ranking member. These four individuals wrote the last Farm Bill, so we know they can work together well, for the most part.

In early 2018, Sen. Roberts said, “I’d like to see us vote (as a committee) in February, but we seem to have a few things to get out of the way: like a continuing resolution, something about a wall, and all those questions about immigration. I think that’s going to eat up all of the time in February and will push the Farm Bill into March.”

As I type this, it’s late April, and the Senate has not introduced their version of the Farm Bill, while the House Ag Committee introduced and passed their bill in mid-April. I truly believe they will kick the can down the road. We may see something happen on the Senate side in May, but politicians who are running for re-election will want to get home and campaign. So the Farm Bill will get put on the back burner, or more likely, back in the fridge.

A little over a year ago, I read an article on LinkedIn entitled, “What Coalitions Matter Today in Food Policy?” written by Matt Herrick, former USDA spokesperson during the Obama administration and current managing director of communications at The Rockefeller Foundation. In his article, Herrick highlights five of the most critical coalitions that will shape the nation’s next Farm Bill. I’ve taken the liberty of adding some of my own thoughts to Herrick’s original article.

Georgia/Southern Coalition
President Trump chose former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue to serve as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. He’s a business man who has been highly involved in global commodities trade. Perdue has deep interests in inputs, specifically fertilizer, and has owned grain elevators across his home state. He is close friends with another key player: American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall. Duvall has been AFBF’s president for a little over two years. He is a third-generation Georgia farmer, who, along with his wife, raises 400 head of cattle, hay for feed, and 750,000 broilers. He served nine years as Georgia Farm Bureau’s president and was appointed to Georgia’s Agriculture Advisory Committee when Perdue was governor. While the Farm Bureau often plays a key role in shaping the Farm Bill, the organization will have significant influence on this particular Farm Bill, given the established relationship between Perdue and Duvall.

Aside from Perdue and Duvall, there is a large presence from the South on the Senate Agriculture Committee. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), John Boozman (R-AR), David Perdue (R-GA and Sec. Perdue’s first cousin), and the newest member of the coalition, Cindy Hyde-Smith, who replaced longtime Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran, all make up this coalition. This group will likely push for cattle, poultry, rice, peanuts, and cotton fixes in the Farm Bill. Keep your eye on the Senate bill for these possible changes.

Nutrition-Production Ag Coalition
Sometimes called the bedrock of modern-day Farm Bills, this collection of farming and commodity groups aligned with nutrition and hunger organizations, which represent a rural-urban coalition that often preserves the heart of the legislation. The idea here is that SNAP—also called food stamps—appeals to urban constituents while commodity payments and crop insurance programs appeal to rural audiences.

Nutrition programs take up anywhere from 80-85% of Farm Bill funding. Total outlays for the 2014 Farm Bill totaled $489 billion, and that’s after we took over $20 billion in cuts due to austerity. SNAP is in the Farm Bill, primarily because of two men who served in the U.S. Senate over 40 years ago: Sen. Bob Dole (R-KS) and Sen. George McGovern (D-SD). The two came together during a time in our history when there was a glut of ag products on the market and too many hungry people, so they linked them together through the Farm Bill. When asked by a reporter why you would put food stamps in the Farm Bill, Dole answered, “Hmmm… food and agriculture, do they have something in common with each other?”

If you take SNAP out of the Farm Bill, that will be the last Farm Bill, ever. We need the support of urban legislators whose constituents utilize SNAP benefits to vote for things like crop insurance and conservation programs that benefit farmers and rural people. The reality of SNAP is, many rural citizens utilize those benefits, too. Out of 435 Congressional districts, only about 35 are considered “rural.” Our voices as rural citizens are significantly diminished with every census. Rural districts grow larger because we have fewer people, but our voice gets smaller. Removing food programs from the Farm Bill essentially removes them from USDA. Taking that large chunk out of USDA’s budget leaves the agency a shell of its former self and makes the agency worthless on a Cabinet level. All of the programs brought forward by the Farm Bill could literally be “farmed out” to other Cabinet agencies. Farmers Union supports keeping food programs in the Farm Bill.

Conservation-Crop Insurance Coalition
When it comes to conservation, the Farm Bill mostly provides voluntary, incentive-based opportunities rather than mandates for private landowners. The Farm Bill’s conservation compliance requirement is one major exception. In order to receive federal crop insurance subsidies (up to 60%) and payments under federal disaster assistance and some commodity support programs, the Farm Bill asks producers to sign an agreement promising they will not farm on highly erodible lands or wetlands. This agreement is cherished by hunting, fishing, and conservation groups, like Ducks Unlimited and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. Commodity farmers often call on these groups to help protect federal crop insurance from budget cuts; for that favor, commodity groups have greater incentive to protect conservation programs. The other thing about members of these groups is they are very active voters. If there’s an issue they care about, such as conservation, they’ll let their legislators know about it, and vote accordingly.

Good Food Movement
This group is identified closely with small farms, local food, organics, equitable pay for farmworkers, food justice, and environmental sustainability. The Good Food Movement is a hodgepodge of progressive food policy advocates and organizations with growing influence in Washington, D.C. and beyond. Although the movement has no official head, its spokespeople are many. From farmer fair practices, to GMO labeling, to cage-free eggs, the Good Food Movement uses grassroots and grasstops (when you focus narrowly on opinion leaders and folks who have connections to elected officials) strategies fueled by digital advocacy (social media) to achieve their goals.

Budget Hawks and the White House
Early in the Trump Administration, it’s clear fiscally conservative think tanks are working hand-in-glove with White House officials and key members of Congress, such as House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), to bring greater scrutiny to the federal appropriations process. It’s still an open question how influential this coalition will be in shaping the federal budget, but that will become clear as we move further along in the session. If the coalition proves effective, it may go after key titles in the Farm Bill—commodity payment programs, crop insurance and nutrition.

Farmers Union has determined that the best coalition we can align ourselves with on the 2018 Farm Bill include the nutrition and conservation groups.

Farmers as Minority
I want to shift gears and touch on minority political principles. Farmers are now less than 1 percent of the population, and are considered a minority group when it comes to policy discussions and decisions. Over time, we have learned to practice the politics of the minority.

Successful minority politics includes five basic principles:
• Find allies issue-by-issue, not philosophy-by-philosophy. For example, environmental groups and farm groups have wide philosophical differences, but both support the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).
• Build coalitions; look for common ground; compromise first within and then among; de-escalate arguments with adversaries; play down small differences; and play up mutual interests. Policy-making in a democracy requires a majority vote. Therefore, a minority must build a coalition into a majority in order to get a bill passed or a policy adopted.
• Be positive and reasonable, and work within the system. Picture a football field. Look to the center of the field. If you’re standing in the center of a football field, you can look to the left and right and see the whole field. In the policy world, this means you can see both sides of an issue. Now, move down to either end of the football field. You can only see part of the field, primarily the side you are standing on. Remember that policy is determined between the 40-yard lines, not in the red zone.
• Base a case on the facts, not on myth or emotion. Policy makers are faced with a multitude of diverse issues on a daily basis. They must rely on professionals and organization lobbyists for accurate, timely information and analysis. It becomes a matter of mutual respect and trust. Misinformation designed to support a cause, whether deliberate or accidental, will backfire eventually. Successful lobbyists agree that providing accurate information is essential to being influential.
• Adopt a nonpartisan strategy. Policy-making eventually occurs across party lines. Interparty compromise eventually occurs. If an organization adopts a partisan strategy, it will either be in or out of power at a give point in time. If it develops contacts and provides support to a member of Congress, for example, based on issues rather than party affiliation, the organization is always in power. This is absolutely necessary for a minority such as agriculture.

As we move further along in the policy process leading up the next Farm Bill, whether it’s in 2018 or 2019, we’ll do well to keep all of these coalitions and principles in mind. By following these practices, we’ll find it’s much easier to navigate the uncertain and sometimes uncharted waters
of agricultural and food policy.

Nick Levendofsky is the director of external affairs at Rocky Mountain Farmers Union. He was the government relations associate at Wisconsin Farmers Union.




From the May | June  2018 Issue


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