Representative Felemon Vela (D-Texas), the new chairman of the House Agriculture Committee’s General Farm and Commodities and Risk Manager Subcommittee, keynoted the National Cotton Council’s annual meeting Saturday, Feb. 9, expressing his concerns about the state of the farm economy as well as implications of the government shutdown and trade issues with China.
“For the first time since I’ve been in Congress, Democrats have the majority and I’ve got to say, it's really nice,” says Vela, who got a laugh from the crowd. Vela was elected to Congress seven years ago.
In 2019, Vela says the state of the farm economy is one of three areas on which the house agriculture committee is going to focus its attention.
“There's still some uncertainty with respect to the farm economy. USDA projects that the 2018 national net farm income will total $66 billion dollars, an 8 percent decrease from 2017. It's $20 billion less than the 10-year average of $86.9 billion. Our commodity prices remain low because the soybean and corn harvest were so strong and of course trade disputes with China are having a depressing impact on commodity prices.”
With respect to credit conditions, Vela admits, things are tough with the seventh consecutive quarter with an increase in farm lending, interest rates on the rise for agricultural loans and the farm-to-debt ratio, debt-to-asset ratio at its highest level since 2003.
Another area of concern is trade. Vela says he and Congressman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) have met with U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer, who is in charge of negotiating many of the trade agreements.
“Primarily our discussion was with respect to NAFTA 2 (U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement). Lighthizer was pretty optimistic we will move towards a deal,” says Vela. “Of course, those of us who represent districts along the U.S./Mexico border, want to see a deal finalized.”
Trade with Japan, China and Europe is an issue they’ll be addressing as well.
Lastly, Vela says the $350 million-increase to rural broadband allocated in the 2018 farm bill and its effectiveness will also be a focal point of discussion for the committee.
As for Vela’s subcommittee, he says they’ll center on the implementation of the 2018 farm bill, and the impact of removing the generic base and how that's going to play out on the farm; President Trump’s Market Facilitation Program and addressing negative implications of the trade war; and the status of crop insurance and its effectiveness as a risk management tool.
While the new farm bill has been in place for a month, the recent government shutdown has delayed implementation. “We're pretty hopeful Congress will have a deal by next week, to avoid another shutdown. USDA's top priority, from the standpoint of implementation, is going to be dairy. And once they take care of that, they're going to move on to changes in ARC and PLC,” says Vela.
Also, on the agenda is addressing laws which have either expired or are on the verge of expiring:
- Grain Standards Act, which sets marketing and inspection laws for many crops.
- Mandatory Price Reporting for livestock marketing, which is used to keep the cattle market fair by providing accurate and consistent information about sales.
- The Commodity Exchange Act, which has already expired, has jurisdiction over the U.S. Commodities Futures Trading Commission. “Chairman Peterson has already said that's one of the first things we're going to take a look at and get through the committees, so we can get it passed.”
- Pesticide Registration Improvement Act passed both chambers but wasn't reconciled. “So, we're hoping we can get a bipartisan agreement on that soon.”
Vela says it’s a good thing the farm bill passed when it did. “I think everybody in Congress is happy except the 47 people that voted against it. Now we've got to make sure through the implementation process, where there are challenges that need to be addressed, that we're keeping a close watch. If there are things we can do to make things better, we'll do what we can to make it easier for agricultural producers all across this country.”
Vela represents the 34th congressional district of Texas, which is anchored in Cameron County in the southernmost tip of Texas and runs nearly 300 miles north of Gonzalez County. His district includes Brownsville, it's the largest city as well as the King Ranch, the Kingsville Naval Air Station, and the historical town of Goliad.
Outgoing NCC Chairman Ron Craft thanked the chairman for his work on the farm bill along with his strong support of the boll weevil eradication program. “The boll weevil program is protecting not only cotton production in this region but in all cotton-growing areas of the United States.” He also thanked him for his leadership in resource conservation, agriculture inspection services, and the trade promotion of agriculture commodities.