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2018 Farm Bill Shaping Up To Be Tough Row to Hoe

Any relief farmers may have felt at the passage out of the House version of the 2018 Farm Bill was very short lived as the Senate passed a different version of their own. Passed by a sweeping 86-11 vote, the Senate bill was largely viewed as a bi-partisan effort to quickly deliver some much needed certainty and support to farmers who are confronting low commodity prices and a myriad of other issues, not the least of which is a rising rate of suicide. 
Photo Credit Ty Lin Williams

Unfortunately, the rare show of solidarity among members of the Senate was not reflected in the House as their bill failed on its first attempt and passed on the second with only the narrowest of margins and no Democrats on board.

Given the disparity between the two different versions of the bill, Washington may be looking at a bitter battle ahead—in an election year, no less—while farmers can do little but stand on the sideline and wait.  And that may be just about the most difficult thing farmers could be asked to do, at this point.

From the floor of the Senate, Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, the Republican Senator from Kansas, laid it out for his colleagues as clearly as he could.  “I don’t know how I can emphasize this more strongly, but I hope my colleagues will understand that the responsibility, the absolute requirement, is to provide farmers, ranchers, growers—everyone within America’s food chain—certainty and predictability during these very difficult times that we’re experiencing,” he’s quoted as saying. “This is not the best possible bill. It’s the best bill possible.  And we’ve worked very hard to produce that.”

Michigan Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow, who serves as the top ranking Democrat on the Agriculture Committee, echoed Senator Roberts. In a recent interview reported by the Chicago Tribune, Stabenow stated, “There is a sense of urgency in the country.  There are so many things that are up in the air for farmers and ranchers.  It’s a very, very difficult time, and this bill really is a bill that provides a safety net for farmers and a safety net for families.”

“Very, very difficult times” may, in fact, be an understatement.  According to the USDA, farm income has dropped every year for four straight consecutive years.  Slightly more than half of all farms now lose money each year, and the situation is expected to worsen with the Federal Reserve signaling an increase in loan rates, tensions over trade relations threatening even the most solid U.S. export markets and the weekend election of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador as Mexico’s new president.  Lopez Obrador states he has strong commitments to NAFTA, but describes himself as “the man to stand up to Trump” and that “Mexico will not be a piñata for foreign governments,” a statement assumed to be directed toward the U.S. over disputes related to “the wall”.

It’s anticipated that conflict over the differing versions of the Farm Bill is centered around four primary issues:  work requirements for food stamps, farm subsidies, crop insurance and funding for conservation programs.

The House version of the bill included a controversial plan for food stamps requiring most adults to spend 20 hours per week either working or participating in a state-run training program in order to receive food stamps.  Under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), recipients receive benefits totaling an average of $125 per month.  There are currently 42.3 million Americans enrolled in the program. Although the plan is backed by both the White House and House Republicans and sold as a creative incentive to get adults back to work, Democrats in the House and senators from both parties oppose the program, stating it will increase to an unfair degree red tape specifically for low-income Americans.

Five years ago, the last time the Farm Bill was up for passage, the food stamp program was a strong area of contention between the parties, highlighting the stark differences in approach.  This time, Texas Republican Senators Ted Cruz and John Kennedy of Louisiana proposed significantly tougher language to the bill, but the measure failed with 68 senators voting for and 30 against. Representative Collin Peterson, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee framed it as follows.  “The things they have in there are mostly to hassle people on SNAP. That’s really what it’s about, and the only thing that’s going to be developed out of it is paperwork.”

The influence of the upcoming mid-term elections can’t be minimized, either.   House Ag Committee Chairman, Republican Representative Mike Conaway of Texas, vowed to defend the provisions, stating it would be “bad politics in an election year to vote against changes designed to move people into the workforce.”  During House conference committee negotiations, Conaway reportedly described the work requirement as one that is a “winning arguments across every demographic in the country”, adding, “if our colleagues are that far out of step with what their voters are telling them just before an election, then they may be doing that at their own peril.”

A battle is also anticipated over proposed changes in the Senate version related to farm subsidies and crop insurance, two components contained within the farm safety net that totals roughly $13 billion.  The Senate proposal eliminates farm managers not actively engaged in running a farm from receiving the subsidies dispersed by the USDA when crop prices fall below predetermined numbers.  In clear contrast, the House version raised existing limits on the subsidies. 
Farm Bill
Conservation funding, an initiative designed to encourage farmers to address soil, air and water quality, also promises to be another hot spot.  Although both bodies cut funding for the program, the House slashed the budget more deeply to the tune of $5 billion over 10 years.  Other smaller issues may be stumbling blocks along the road, including programs that encourage organic farming and local food. 

The Farm Bill is due to expire in September. Congress could vote to extend the bill, but, in the absence of either a new bill or an extension of what’s currently in place, there will no doubt be some programs that lose funding.

Although some lawmakers may view an extension as an if-all-else-fails escape hatch, Andrew Walmsley, Director of Congressional relations with the powerful American Farm Bureau Federation does not want an extension to even be considered.  “There’s no reason to not get a conference done and the bill back through both chambers by the deadline,” he recently stated.  “We have made it clear that farmers must have more certainty in the upcoming growing season. We don’t want an extension.”
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