Morgan, Minn., Aug. 3, 2017 – House Agriculture Committee members left a farm bill listening session Thursday with a laundry list of requests and a better idea of what a group of producers expect out of the legislation.

The committee held its third listening session at Farmfest, a farm show near Morgan, Minnesota. The format, with each witness having just a few minutes to make his or her case, left little room for input from the members of Congress, and Minnesotan Collin Peterson, the committee’s top Democrat, seemed to like it that way.

“I’ve been through quite a few of these farm bills, and I have to say that this format is a much better format than what we’ve had in the past,” Peterson said, agreeing with Conaway’s assertion that most field hearings were too formal. “This way, you get through a lot more folks, and we’re not interrupting and interjecting and trying to convince everybody how smart we are. We’re just listening, which is what we should be doing.”

The 11 members of Congress in attendance did just that, listening to the concerns of dozens of producers about everything from dairy policy close to home to trade policy abroad. Common themes emerged, including a strong desire to protect crop insurance in the farm bill.

“We’ve got to have risk-management tools in the farm bill,” Kevin Paap, president of Minnesota Farm Bureau, told the panel. “Personally, I was involved in a hail storm this year where we lost the corn and the bean crop on one farm. I’m not going to make any money at that this year, but I’m going to be able to farm again next year because of those risk-management tools.”

Minnesota being a major dairy state, witnesses had a lot to say about the nature of the farm bill’s dairy policy, specifically the Margin Protection Program. For the most part, producers asked for feed cost adjustments that, they said, would better reflect margins.

“There’s a common agreement among dairy farmers that the Margin Protection Program … is ineffective,” said Steve Schlangen, chair of the Associated Milk Producers Inc. “For dairy farmers to utilize the program, they need to see a feed-cost formula that more closely reflects what they are experiencing on their farms.”

Some speakers also touched on the Livestock Gross Margin program for dairy and a desire to see it continue. But the comments that dealt with dairy – like many of the other industries discussed on Thursday – all reflected the same sentiment: Times are tough.

Several speakers talked about organic policy, urging members of Congress to push for better funding for the National Organic Program and stronger enforcement of the organic label. Specifically, import issues were cited by many speakers who want to make sure organic grain brought to U.S. shores shares the same standards as U.S. product.

Many other issues – CRP acreage, nutrition support, a foot and mouth disease vaccine bank, and support for sugar beet producers, to name a few – were discussed by the litany of speakers. Many had requests that were similar, as they sought help during another year of low commodity prices. 

House Ag Committee Chair Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said that’s a familiar theme from previous listening sessions in Florida and Texas.

“Particularly in Texas, we had some folks share with us in such a way that they don’t normally open themselves that way, but times are really hard,” he said. “The importance of the farm bill is coming through loud and clear.”

Work is already underway on a handful of policy ideas, Conaway said. Speaking to reporters after the hearing, he said some proposals have been given to the Congressional Budget Office for scoring, but declined to elaborate on what was sent. Conaway also noted that their proposals weren’t exactly in the front of the line for CBO consideration.

Still, Conaway said he hoped to get something to the floor of the House by early 2018 or possibly by the end of 2017.

“The goal is to have it signed by the president before it expires in September of 2018,” Conaway told Agri-Pulse. “The sooner both (the House and Senate) get it done, then we’ll have a period of time to go through the conference committee process and get this thing together.”

The committee is officially scheduled to host two more listening sessions – one Saturday in California and another at the end of the month in Illinois – although Conaway hinted that there may be one or two more. Peterson said committee Democrats will organize a separate event in California next week, and he will hear from farmers in Missouri at the request of a colleague later in the month.

In addition to Conaway and Peterson, nine other members of Congress attended the listening session: Kevin Cramer, R-N.D.; Tom Emmer, R-Minn.; Dwight Evans, D-Penn.; Rodney Davis, R-Ill.; Steve King, R-Iowa; Roger Marshall, R-Kan., Kristi Noem, R-S.D.; Rick Nolan, D-Minn.; and Tim Walz, D-Minn.


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