International trade, a new farm bill, infrastructure and immigration are shaping up to be the big challenges facing U.S. agriculture in 2018. That’s according to an informal survey of the major farm organizations and several commodity groups that have been busy lobbying on these issues for months. Here’s how the different organizations are looking at the big issues in the new year.

American Farm Bureau Federation:

AFBF, the biggest U.S. farm group, plans a “major push” to make sure the new farm bill includes “a viable safety net and workable risk management tools” to help its members cope with declines in farm prices and farm income.

“Net farm income has dropped 50 percent in the last four years – the largest four-year percentage decrease since the Great Depression,” noted Dale Moore, AFBF’s executive director of public policy. “We know that about one in 10 farmers is highly or extremely leveraged with loans that must be repaid. Farmers and ranchers are tightening their belts and will be in greater need of a safety net than has been the case for some time.”

Trade also ranks high among the Farm Bureau’s concerns, especially amid worries that the U.S. will pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement, leaving ag commodities vulnerable to tariffs from Canada and Mexico, where U.S. farm exports are now virtually duty free. There has also been talk about ending the free trade agreement with South Korea, known as KORUS.

“We are working to advance international market opportunities for our members through whatever vehicle is available, including NAFTA, KORUS and WTO,” Moore said. “Our farmers and ranchers sell about a third of everything they produce to foreign markets. In fact, agriculture is one of the few economic sectors in our nation to claim a positive trade balance. NAFTA has helped prime the pump. Since implemented in 1994, our ag exports to Canada and Mexico have grown from $8.9 billion to $38 billion in 2016. Trade with South Korea through KORUS is another story of success, with an anticipated $7 billion in U.S. ag exports this year.”

Farm labor is another major issue for AFBF, which is vowing to “continue to be a leader in the fight for an agricultural labor plan that works for all sectors of agriculture and all regions of our country.” Moore said the plan should include “a new, flexible visa program that ensures long-term access to an expanding workforce by allowing foreign-born workers to enter the U.S.”

AFBF will also continue to point out the need for a provision that allows skilled laborers currently working in agriculture to earn an adjustment in status and remain working in the U.S., he said.

Moore said a bill being pushed by House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., addresses some reforms in the immigration system. But he said the legislation “must be improved upon” to make sure it works for all sectors of agriculture. 

National Farmers Union

NFU, America’s second-biggest general farm group, also points to the farm bill and trade as among the biggest challenges racing the agriculture community. NFU President Roger Johnson says the farm bill should include more funding for a safety net that will protect farmers and ranchers who are “enduring a severe downtown in the farm economy.” He also warns against renewed efforts to separate farm and nutrition programs.

Roger Johnson

Roger Johnson, NFU

“The newly passed tax reform bill leaves a gaping hole in the federal budget – a hole that some members of Congress will want to fill with farm program and entitlement spending cuts,” Johnson said.

Johnson said NFU stands behind President Trump in his efforts to fix the nation’s trade imbalance. Still, he said, “to this point, the rhetoric out of the White House has made this goal very difficult. Insults and impulsive threats of withdrawal are not successful negotiating tactics. The administration must find a way to mitigate these actions, and they need to find it quickly.”

“The new agenda needs to reduce our trade deficit, deal with currency manipulation, fix the dispute resolution process, and harmonize labor and environmental requirements with those in the U.S.,” Johnson said.

National Corn Growers Association

Chris Novak, the CEO of the National Corn Growers Association, says the biggest challenge NCGA will face this year is marketing another near-record U.S. corn crop and the hefty carryover from the previous harvest. In that regard, corn producers will be shooting for a regulatory fix that will allow higher blends of corn-based ethanol to be sold year-round. In many states, gasoline with a 15 percent ethanol blend (E15) can only be sold for nine months of the year. “We need some help from EPA to fix that regulation, which is clearly outdated,” Novak said.

NCGA will also be working to ensure agriculture is protected should the U.S. withdraw from NAFTA or KORUS. NAFTA partner Mexico is the top buyer of U.S. corn, yet Novak said there’s already been an 8 percent drop in U.S. exports to its southern neighbor as Mexican importers, moved by U.S. rhetoric and their desire to protect their supplies, go shopping elsewhere.

“Our hope for 2018 is actually that the U.S. Trade Representative, USDA and the Commerce Department can all make a shift to looking for opportunities to create new bilateral agreements, as opposed to saying we have to finish off current negotiations,” Novak said.

National Pork Producers Council

The National Pork Producers Council agrees trade will be a paramount issue for its members in 2018, emphasizing the harm that could result in U.S. withdrawal from either NAFTA, which now includes a zero tariff rate for pork exported to Canada and Mexico, or to KORUS. “We need to make sure that both are maintained,” said NPPC spokesman Dave Warner.

The pork producers also are asking Congress to provide funds, probably in the farm bill, for a vaccine bank that would minimize losses from an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the U.S., something that hasn’t happened since 1929. Such a facility would cost about $150 million per year over the five-year life of the farm bill, he said.

“That’s a big ask, I know,” said Warner, “but we’ve gotten a pretty good reception from Congress. “They see the potential risk from an FMD outbreak,” he said, citing an Iowa State estimate that said pork, beef, soy and corn sectors could suffer $200 billion over a 10-year period from an FMD outbreak.

National Cattlemen’s Beef Association

Among the priorities of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association in 2018 are getting manure exempted from two Superfund laws that require animal feeding operations to report certain emissions, and getting a farm bill done before the current legislation expires Sept. 30.

“We don’t believe that Congress ever intended for the Superfund laws (the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or CERCLA, and the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, or EPCRA) to apply to agriculture,” Colin Woodall, NCBA’s senior vice president of government affairs, said in a podcast recorded on Tuesday. “Fortunately, we have been able to buy ourselves a little time so our top priority going into 2018 is trying to get some protection in place. Ideally we want to see manure exempted from CERCLA and EPCRA and we’re looking at legislation that could make that happen.”

Colin Woodall, NCBA

Colin Woodall, NCBA

Getting a farm bill done expeditiously won’t be easy, Woodall acknowledges. ‘We have to be very careful here because history is not on our side when it comes to getting a Farm Bill done in time, but with the motivation of the House and Senate chairmen, we’re going to everything we can to help them be successful in getting this bill done.”

NCBA will also be working to get more exemptions from the Department of Transportation for compliance with new rules requiring truckers to use electronic logging devices to track their hours behind the wheel.

“Right now most commercial truckers are having to comply with the ELD mandate,” Woodall said. “However for agriculture we were able to buy ourselves a little time  ... ELDs and hours of service as they exist don’t work for live animals being hauled down the road. We can’t have these animals sitting on the side of the road – we need them moving in order to keep them comfortable and get them to market as quickly as possible.”

National Milk Producers Federation

The National Milk Producers Federation says fixing the dairy safety net for its members is its top policy priority for 2018. The group says the current dairy Margin Protection Program (MPP), enacted in 2014, has failed to provide a meaningful level of protection to farmers who want to use it.  Accordingly, it has proposed changing the way feed costs and milk prices are calculated, as well as providing farmers greater flexibility in signing up for coverage.  The group says Congress will likely first have to make some enhancements in the dairy safety net in the still-pending $81 billion supplemental disaster bill that passed the House before Christmas, but on which the Senate has yet to act. Then, the House and Senate Agriculture committees will need to make additional improvements in the 2018 Farm Bill.

“We need a functional safety net for dairy farmers, and our organization spent last year making the case for how those improvements can be made,” said NMPF President and CEO Jim Mulhern. “I’m optimistic that in 2018, we’ll end up with better risk management tools for our industry.”

Another priority is preserving and improving NAFTA, which NMPF notes has provided America’s dairy farmers with significant benefits over the last 20-plus years, including helping to create an export opportunity in Mexico worth more than $1 billion a year.

“Losing that market is simply not an option – we can’t afford to go back to a pre-NAFTA era,” Mulhern said. He added that the group sees the NAFTA renegotiations as a “crucial opportunity” to demand that Canada rescind its new Class 7 pricing program.

One last critical issue for NMPF is helping dairy farmers obtain legal access to immigrant workers. National Milk supports the Agriculture Guestworker Act, which narrowly passed the House Judiciary Committee the past fall.

American Soybean Association

John Heisdorffer, president of the American Soybean Association sees maintaining the safety net for America’s farmers as his group’s top priority. “Now that we gave up direct payments in prior farm bills, the only thing we have out there now is crop insurance. We don’t have a safety net except for crop insurance. That’s the number-one thing – we have to have that to protect our members.”

Trade is also a top priority, an issue that includes maintaining NAFTA and preserving and improving trade relations with other nations, including China, the biggest customer for U.S. soybeans. That relationship is currently being tested by disputes over steel and solar panels that could result in tough new trade penalties against the world’s most populous country – and retaliatory actions against U.S. exporters.

“Any time someone says that we’re gonna throw something into the mix -- solar panels, steel, whatever -- it makes us nervous. China is definitely the biggest customer for U.S. soybeans, so we don’t want to ruffle their feathers too much there.”

ASA will also be lobbying for maintenance and improvements in the nation’s infrastructure, including the locks, dams and ports that allow ASA members to move their product down the nation’s rivers to export ports on the Gulf of Mexico.

“I got a good look at these facilities a couple of years ago the concrete was failing on some of the locks and dams – and things haven’t gotten any better,” Heisdorffer said. “These facilities are years past replacing.”

American Sugar Alliance

The biggest challenge this year for the American Sugar Alliance will be fending off attempts in the farm bill to “outsource America’s sugar production to subsidized foreign competitors.” That’s according to ASA spokesman Phil Hayes, who says the biggest threat comes from a bill introduced last year to dismantle what generally is a sugar policy that operates at no cost to taxpayers.

“We call it the Sugar Farmer Bankruptcy Bill,” Hayes said.

The U.S. sugar program uses price supports, domestic marketing allotments and tariff rate quotas to influence the amount of sugar available to the U.S. market. Producers are also able to get loans to help cash-flow operations while sugar is stored for customers. Because loans are repaid with interest, the policy has operated without cost in the 2014 Farm Bill. Producers would lose access to those loans under the proposal cited by Hayes.

“This is serious business, and our livelihoods hang in the balance of the debate,” Travis Medine, a Louisiana sugarcane farmer, said in a release. “We literally have thousands of family farms and manufacturing jobs on the line.”