Despite the 35-day shutdown that all but halted work on the new farm bill, the Department of Agriculture is close to finishing a timeline for implementing revisions to programs, says Deputy Ag Secretary Steve Censky.

Speaking at a Farm Foundation forum on Tuesday, Censky said the department would be briefing leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture committees soon on the department's timeline and also would be scheduling listening sessions to gather input from producers and others with an interest in the programs. 

He said the department was putting a priority on launching sign-ups for the Dairy Margin Coverage program, an overhauled version of the former Margin Protection Program, as well as the Agriculture Risk Coverage and Price Loss Coverage programs for row crops. 

The farm bill makes DMC coverage retroactive to Jan. 1 and allows farmers to switch between ARC and PLC this year. 

“We are working to move just as quickly as we can to implement the provisions,” said Censky. 

USDA held its first farm bill task force meeting on Dec. 21, the day after President Donald Trump signed the bill into law and the day before the shutdown began, Censky noted. 

The Natural Resources Conservation Service, which administers most conservation programs other than the Conservation Reserve Program, was the only major agency that was able to continue work on farm bill implementation during the shutdown because staff was paid through program funding, Censky said. 

Another shutdown is a possibility as soon as Feb. 16. USDA is among a group of departments operating on a continuing resolution that expires Feb. 15, and lawmakers have yet to reach agreement with Trump on his demands for border wall funding.

Sen. Pat Roberts

Senate Ag Committee Chair Pat Roberts, R-Kan.

But with Congress still smarting from the last shutdown, Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., expressed confidence that there won't be another one this month. “We’re not going to do another shutdown, we’re just not,” he said. 

Barry Flinchbaugh, a longtime agricultural economist at Kansas State University, praised lawmakers for giving farmers multiple chances to switch between ARC and PLC. Farmers will have to stay with the program they choose this year through 2020, but they will get another choice between the programs in 2021, 2022 and 2023. 

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the majority of producers will choose PLC and stay with it through the life of the five-year bill. Under the 2014 farm bill, farmers were able to choose between the programs only once. 

“No longer will farmers have to make a Vegas-like five-year decision,” said Flinchbaugh, referring to the fact that farmers were forced to base their choice on what they believed market conditions would be for an entire five-year period. 

Tara Smith, vice president of federal affairs at Michael Torrey Associates, which represents crop insurers among other clients, said it was imperative that USDA move quickly on farm bill implementation without allowing the listening sessions to slow down the process. 

Alan Bjerga, senior vice president of communications for the National Milk Producers Federation, said his group was pressing the Farm Service Agency to implement DMC without going through a formal rulemaking process. 

National Milk also wants to maximize producer interest in the program and wants to make sure that the decision-making and sign-up for farmers are as easy as possible. Sign-up for the original Margin Protection Program was carried out in a way that seemed to dampen producer enthusiasm, he said. Producer interest never reached the levels MPP supporters hoped. 

Flinchbaugh, who joined Kansas State in 1971, slammed President Donald Trump’s trade policy and called on Congress to curb the president’s ability to impose tariffs on imports as leverage to gain trade concessions. “We are in the midst of a vicious trade war that will cost agriculture billions. …. History shows that no one wins a trade war,” Flinchbaugh said. 

Farmers have quietly become more restive about the impact of the retaliatory tariffs on U.S. exports and farm income, he said. 

“It’s time to admit it (the trade war) was ill-conceived and that it never was going to work. Simply end it and then get to work building multilateral trade agreements,” Flinchbaugh said. 

Flinchbaugh said the new farm bill was “farmer friendly” and would provide producers with needed certainty and financial stability in the middle of the downturn in farm income. As an evolutionary bill, which made relatively small changes to the 2014 farm bill, the new legislation “established a long-run foundation on which to build future farm policy, a contract, if you please, between farmers and their government," he said. 

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