State Ag officials need to speak up in D.C., industry leaders say

By Stephen Davies

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Feb. 1, 2016 -- The state officials who work most closely with farmers need to make their voices heard by federal regulators, industry leaders said Monday during a panel discussion at the kickoff of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture meeting in Washington.

“We have been told recently by [EPA] officials that the agency simply isn't hearing from the stakeholder community,” said Beau Greenwood, executive vice president at CropLife America, which represents the agrichemical industry.

“Could anything be more basic than the relationship between state regulators and regulators inside the Capital Beltway?” he asked the audience, which included ag commissioners and directors from nearly all 50 states.

Lets Talk Food

Speaking up is important, but so is speaking in a unified voice, said Mike Torrey, principal of the Michael Torrey Associates lobbying firm. “We in the ag industry do one thing better than all the others,” he said. “We do a great job of creating circular firing squads.”

But with issues such as food labeling affecting multiple levels of the farm industry, Torrey said there is a need for compromise. Instead of looking for unanimity during policy debates, he said it's probably better to seek “80 percent agreement.”

Getting farmers involved isn't easy, however. Whether it was the historically high crop prices or just the fact that there are only so many hours in a day, during the negotiations for the 2014 farm bill “the ag groups here in town pounded their head against the wall trying to get their producers to engage” directly with lawmakers, Torrey said.

He then took note of the poll just conducted for Agri-Pulse on farmers' views as the presidential campaign heats up. Nineteen percent of farmers listed “national security/terrorism” at the top of the list of issues they are most concerned about, followed by “moral values” and “immigration/ag labor” at about 14 percent, and “deficit reduction” at 13.5 percent. It's not as if most major ag issues “fall in that top tier,” Torrey said.

But farmers may simply not be as aware as they should be of the issues affecting them. Sara Wyant, editor and founder of Agri-Pulse and the moderator of the NASDA panel, said the poll also showed that two-thirds of farmers either do not know what the Trans-Pacific Partnership is or have an unfavorable view of the trade pact, which has the potential to vastly increase farm exports.

TPP passage in Congress will take some time and needs direct support from the farm community, Torrey said.  “If it's going to happen (before the next administration), it's going to have to happen in the lame duck,” Torrey said, referring to the period after the election but before a new president and Congress are sworn in.

“Unless the supply chain supports this agreement, it's going to be a challenge,” he said. “It's not just going to be a matter of supporting it and hoping it happens.”

The next farm bill, which is due for passage in 2018, was also the subject of discussion. The consensus was it won't be easy getting a package through Congress.

“This next farm bill is going to be difficult,” predicted Brian Baenig, executive vice president for food and agriculture at the Biotechnology Innovation Organization. “The ARC (Agriculture Risk Coverage) program is paying out a significant amount of money right now. There's going to be tremendous pressure on production agriculture.”

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In the past, farm bills have passed as the result of traditional alliance between food stamp advocates and production agriculture, Baenig said. But that may not happen this time. “Congress has changed too much.” He said that all aspects of agriculture “need to have a spot at the table,” mentioning the organic industry in particular as one of the “newer-ish” sectors.

In the last go-round, he noted, “there was a major split between commodity groups. You saw a very regional split in a very public way. That is very dangerous for production agriculture.”

One issue that will probably crop up is GMOs, Baenig said. “My guess is we're going to have a debate about this in the next farm bill.”

And CropLife's Greenwood said that even though pesticide policy has traditionally not been a subject for the farm bill, it may be time for that to change.

The NASDA meeting continues through Wednesday, when the group will hear from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack; Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kansas; and Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee.

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