Farm bill discussions to begin this week

Oct 28, 2013

After years of farm bill delays, public negotiations on a new fiveyear plan are scheduled to begin this week.

The first public meetings of the farm bill conference committee are scheduled for this Wednesday afternoon and will be chaired by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK).

The Senate passed its comprehensive farm bill in the early summer, while the House passed its farm policy and food aid proposals in two separate measures. Now the two will see if an agreement can be reached by Jan. 1, the latest deadline before parts of federal agricultural policy could revert back to 1940s-era laws and price levels.

The biggest issue of contention continues to be the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps. The Senate measure would cut about $4 billion in funding for the program over the next decade, while the House version would cut nearly $40 billion.

Forty-one House and Senate lawmakers have been assigned to the conference committee. Most of the members are from the House and Senate agriculture committees, with others appointed by party leaders. A few come from the ways and means and foreign affairs committees to address the tax policy and foreign aid.

While the food stamp debate will be highly publicized, ag groups will be watching a number of other areas including the debate on the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Act (GIPSA), which has long since divided producers.

Eight U.S. senators recently sent in a letter, hoping to preserve what they consider a competitive marketplace for U.S. livestock and poultry producers.

Led by Senators Jon Tester (D- MT) and Charles Grassley (R-IA), the legislators urged Senate agriculture leaders to reject a provision in the House-passed farm bill that undermines the ability of the USDA to enforce GIPSA.

The senators said that “the House farm bill includes Section 11102, which would greatly limit the authority of the secretary to address deceptive, fraudulent, retaliatory and anti-competitive practices by meatpackers in the livestock industry.”

According to an R-CALF press release, the group of eight contends this provision would harm poultry producers and independent livestock producers by leaving them vulnerable to concentrated market forces.

“We believe regulation should be limited in a marketplace, but we also believe having little to no regulation in place is problematic, especially in our concentrated livestock and poultry industries.

“We strongly urge the Senate to reject the House’s provision in its entirety,” the senators wrote.

The other senators who joined the letter include Tim Johnson (D-SD), John Rockefeller IV (D-WV), Al Franken (D-MN), Joe Manchin (D-WV) Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND).

During a conference call last week with 25 reporters, producers stressed the importance of a “full and fair” farm bill that addresses real needs across the country.

Kathy Ozer of the National Family Farm Coalition said some of her members’ concerns include the importance of keeping a permanent farm policy package on the books and the wholesale de-funding of certain programs like GIPSA.

She said she hopes an eventual farm bill package will include a provision placed in the Senate bill by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) that would require a fair pricing investigation for dairy farmers.

Maintaining the current dating of the farm laws and the “marriage” between the farm program and nutrition programs are “overarching concerns” of the farm bill conference process, the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) wrote in a letter to conferees on Oct. 16.

“For some time, the threat of reinstatement of the long-outdated policies of the 1938 and 1949 acts have served as strong motivation for Congress to enact new farm bills,” AF- BF president Bob Stallman wrote at the beginning of a five-page letter.

“Repealing those acts and making the 2013 farm bill commodity title permanent law could make it difficult in the future to generate sufficient political pressure to adjust the commodity safety net provisions should conditions in production agriculture change,” he continued.

AFBF also opposes House provisions to repeal regulations on livestock and poultry practices that GIPSA finalized in December 2011 that provide for treatment of producers of those animals. “This is especially harmful to the poultry industry,” Stallman noted.

Another contentious issue in farm bill debate centers around farming acreage.

On an issue that has split commodity groups, AFBF has come out in favor of a House provision making target price-based payments on planted rather than historical acreage.

The Senate bill makes the payments on historical plantings.

“We support payments being made on planted acres, but note it is imperative rates not be set too high as to encourage planting for government programs. We recognize this is a potential issue in tying a program to planted versus base acres,” Stallman wrote.

The National Farmers Union also opposes the repeal of the livestock regulations promulgated under the Packers and Stockyards Act.

Despite the contentious topics, most in the industry are optimistic that a farm bill will happen. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor