WASHINGTON, Sept. 20, 2017 - Farmers and ranchers would like to see a new farm bill “sooner rather than later,” says Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, but he is still in the process of listening to members and various interest groups, while waiting for final budget numbers. The chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry says formal work on a new bill can begin sometime after those efforts are complete. The current bill expires on Sept. 30, 2018.
"This is not a time for a revolutionary farm bill ,” Roberts told Agri-Pulse in an exclusive interview. “We're in a pretty rough patch right now in agriculture across the board.
“The two issues that we have heard in Kansas, Michigan, Montana, Alabama and other places are -- crop insurance, probably the number-one issue, and right next to it is trade. And then you split off into regions of the country where they feel that certain aspects of the farm bill can be improved.”
However, it’s difficult to know what can be changed in a new farm bill without knowing the budget parameters. Asked if he expects more money for the bill, less money or the status quo, he says: “That’s the big question.” Roberts says that whatever Congress does or doesn't do on health care or tax reform will have big impacts on the budget and “we'll just have to see” what numbers are forthcoming in the next couple of weeks.
“I just left a meeting with (Senate Budget Committee Chairman) Mike Enzi, who started off by saying, ‘Well, with Pat Roberts in the room we’re not going to talk about cutting agriculture.’ Maybe out of the room they will. Who knows? But that budget figure will determine a lot of what we’re able to do.”
Timing is also an important factor, given that lawmakers will still be trying to hold hearings on President Trump's nominees and potentially tackle health care, tax reform, and infrastructure before the end of the year. His committee will hold another farm bill listening session within the next couple of weeks, but the date and location has not yet been announced.
“Time is probably the most valuable commodity that we have and whether we can get two days or three days for the farm bill determines whether or not we can put something together that is truly bipartisan and will get over 60 votes,” Roberts added.
Here are some of Roberts’ other comments on farm bill topics.
Crop Insurance: Asked if he was assured by budget negotiators that crop insurance would not be cut, Roberts said, “We've sure made a good argument. We were able to convince the president, we ought to be able to convince the budget writers.” But he lamented the “constant critics” of crop insurance who “don’t fully understand how this has evolved over the years as the primary tool in a farmer’s tool box to assist with risk management. If we didn’t have crop insurance, I don’t know of any lending institution that would lend a farmer for the next year’s crop. The access to capital would be greatly hindered. That would be felt all up and down Main Street.” Roberts says he doesn’t want to end up with – under the banner of reform -- fewer crop insurance companies serving only low-risk operations.
Regulatory Reform: In the next farm bill, Roberts wants to look for ways to further streamline regulations and paperwork confronting producers who participate in government programs. For example, he'd like to make it easier for farmers to certify compliance with USDA conservation requirements.
Cotton: “We know the past farm program did not work well -- at least to the degree (cotton producers) feel it should. Crop insurance is sort of a hard fit. They requested the secretary put them back in Title One (of the farm bill). We will consider that. But that’s along with requests from everybody else. As soon as we get the budget figures, we will figure it out."
Dairy: Roberts says dairy policy has always been complicated because of smaller dairy operations in the Northeast and the larger dairies in Kansas and throughout the West. “It’s a disparate kind of thing. You may have a farm program that would help a smaller producer and the larger producer might not even need it or want it. So that’s going to be a hard thing to deal with.”
Conservation Reserve Program (CRP): Some committee members would like to increase the size of the CRP, but Roberts says you get into the pros and cons of that issue real quickly, including: “it’s too costly, you tie up land for a long time," and, "you want to hay and graze if you have a problem with Mother Nature." All of those questions have to be considered, Roberts said. "Probably the biggest situation, if you tie up too much ground in a county or area of the country, it really takes away from the economic situation with our small communities. They don’t die on the vine, but if you lock up a lot of acres you are denying a lot of economic benefit.”
Research: Lawmakers developed the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research in the last farm bill to leverage public funds with private investments. “They’ve done some things that are interesting and we’ll have to work on that funding as well,” Roberts said. In addition, he pointed out that ag research funding has been flat for about six years. "I don’t think you can do that with a global economy and keep up with a lot of our competitors," he said. "That’s not a good thing to be putting on the back burner.”
Foot and Mouth Disease Bank: USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service currently manages a vaccine bank at Plum Island, N.Y., where a limited number of FMD strains are stored. But livestock groups are concerned that, if an outbreak occurred, the antigen would have to be shipped overseas to be turned into finished vaccine and shipped back to the United States - taking weeks or even months. Roberts said he hopes the National Bio and Agro-defense Facility (NBAF), which is being sited in Manhattan, Kansas, and is expected to be finished in 2022, will come up with a “permanent fix. "But that takes money. That’s got to fit into the package of where we think we ought to be,” he said.
Trade: “Whenever I get a chance to talk to Secretary. of Commerce (Wilbur) Ross and others I tell them that we want to export things we make but also export things we grow. You don’t want to do one at the expense of the other.” Roberts says there is a lot of opportunity to "modernize, improve, and renegotiate NAFTA in a way that is conducive to trade” as well as expand commerce with the Pacific Rim countries and China’s 1.4 billion consumers.
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