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Funding, timing will be critical issues for farm bill debate

Rice Panelists
USA Rice farm bill panelists Jennifer Cervantes, Tom Sell, Reece Langley, Robert Redding, Dale Thorenson, and Ben Mosley, discussed farm bill expectations at a breakout session during the USA Rice Outlook Conference in San Antonio.
A new farm bill will find challenges in funding, timing and legislators who have never voted on a farm bill before. A united ag front will be crucial.

Holding on to the current farm policy, with a few targeted tweaks, would suit most commodity organizations — with the exception of cotton and dairy — but funding will be a challenge as Congress begins debating the next farm bill.

Representatives for soybeans, sugar, cotton, peanuts and rice offered their wish list for a farm program during a farm bill panel, a standing room only break-out session at the USA Rice Outlook Conference in San Antonio.

Tom Sell, co-founder and managing partner of Combest Sell and Associates, moderated the panel, which included Reece Langley, National Cotton Council; Jennifer Cervantes, vice president, Florida Sugar Cane league; Dale Thorenson, associate at Gordley Associates, representing the American Soybean Association; Ben Mosely, vice president, USA Rice; and Robert Redding, president, The Redding Firm, Inc., representing the Southern Peanut Farmers Federation.

Panelists agreed that a unified front, across all ag commodities and interests, will be crucial when making a case to Congress for necessary funding. “When farm groups start fighting over funding, that’s when the wheels fall off the bus,” said Cervantes. “We have to stick together.”

“It’s important that we don’t let happen to this farm bill debate what happened in 2014,” Redding said. “We were divided.”

“It shouldn’t be that hard,” Thorenson said. “We’re not changing policy that much.”

Langley says cotton policy needs more than a tweak, however. “With the 2014 act, Cotton has no access to ARC or PLC. Our No.1 priority for the next farm bill is to realize an increase in our safety net. STAX has not been sufficient to deal with multiple years of low cotton prices.”

Redding says the 2014 farm program has worked well for peanuts. “We like the PLC option. We want to keep the reference price, the support for storage and handling costs, and the separate payment limit for peanuts. This has been good farm policy for us.”

“Most people in the rice industry have been pleased with the farm program and PLC,” Mosely said. “The mechanics of the program are working; it just needs some tweaks.”

Cervantes says sugar does not qualify for ARC or PLC but hopes to “maintain the sugar program we have. We will fight tooth and nail to retain what we have. We are working to make people understand the importance of sugar.”

She says sugar needs the support of a farm program. “A free market for sugar does not exist. If we dismantle our program, the rest of the world will not.” She said sugar will not add acreage but will rely on increased yield and efficiency for growth. “Our footprint will not be larger.”

Sugar creates jobs, she adds. “Sugar is responsible for 142,000 jobs across the country, but sugar is not produced in every state, so we have to educate legislators.”

That chore will be a big one with the next farm bill debate. “We have 120 members of Congress who have never voted on a farm bill. We don’t know how they will vote,” Cervantes said. “It is important for us to explain the importance of sugar.”

Political action committees are key, she adds. “A PAC doesn’t guarantee they will vote your way, but it does gain access. We have to build long-term relationships.”

“That’s our weakest area,” Redding said.

Thorenson added that if farm organizations do not show up and make their case, other organizations will step up and make theirs.

Sell said anti-ag groups are well-organized and well-funded and have created a new force in Washington.

Money, a huge issue in the 2014 farm bill debate, will again dictate policy. “We’re all asking for more money,” said Thorenson. “It’s a challenging time for agriculture, so we at least want to keep our baseline and that will be hard.”

“Baseline reflects the amount of money expected to be spent over 10 years if the policy in place now remains,” Sell explained.

Baseline is a particular sticky issue for cotton. Langley said cotton hopes to build its baseline before a new farm policy is enacted.

Deep Cuts

Losing the Foreign Market Development program has been a blow, Mosley said. “We had hoped for an increase, now we just hope to get back to square one. It’s a tough environment; we’re always facing cuts, and we continue to deal with cuts already in place.”

“We struggle with the Congressional budget Office,” Redding added. “They don’t understand the peanut industry.”

Timing of the farm bill is another big question mark. “Everyone agrees that we want farm bill efforts to begin quickly when Congress gets back in the new year,” Sell said

“We hope it’s enacted in 2018,” Langley said. “Our worst-case scenario is a delay.” He anticipates the House will move first and have something out by the end of the first quarter. If the Senate acts quickly the two bills could go to conference by mid-term.

“The closer to the 2018 election the bill is rolled out, the harder it will to pass it,” Thorenson said.

Timing could be a challenge, Cervantes says, especially if the bill follows a promised executive order to reform welfare. “That probably will not be helpful,” she said. “It will be interesting to see what comes out of the executive order. We could see a work requirement. That will tell us a lot about how the farm bill will roll out.”

Panelists expect bi-partisan efforts in both the House and Senate agriculture committees, but Congress overall is “getting more partisan, less cooperative,” Sell says. Panel consensus indicated that passing the tax bill could improve that situation. “It would take some pressure off Democrats to oppose anything proposed,” Redding said.

“I yearn for the days when we had more cooperation,” Sell added.

Panelists said generic acreage — moved out of cotton in the 2014 program — will be an issue with the next farm bill. They don’t expect more money to be allotted for farm programs.

The challenge ag commodities face between now and when Congress rolls out a farm bill is to educate legislators on what producers need to continue to produce affordable food. Grassroots efforts are called for, Cervantes says.

“We’re trying to develop data to help put a farm bill together,” Thorenson said.

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