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Farm Bill; Ag Economy; and, Immigration

Farm Bill

Ramsey Cox reported yesterday at The Hill’s Floor Action Blog that, “Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has scheduled a vote for Monday on the farm bill.

“Reid filed cloture on the House-passed amendment to H.R. 2642 — the $956 billion conference committee farm bill — setting up a vote for Monday at 5:30 p.m.  If at least 60 senators vote to end debate, the Senate will then proceed to a vote on final passage.”

The Hill update noted that, “‘While it cuts more to food assistance programs than some of us would like, it’s a good compromise that will protect needy families,’ Reid said Thursday morning.”

The article added that, “One of the conferees, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), said he wouldn’t support final passage of the bill because it didn’t include major reforms to farm subsidies that both the original Senate and House bills included.

“‘Does the new farm bill improve agriculture in America? I believe unfortunately the answer is no,’ Roberts said. ‘We should not pass a farm bill with more government subsidies, more government regulations and more waste.’”

After Monday’s cloture vote, a vote on final passage would then come on Tuesday.

Daniel Looker reported yesterday at Agriculture.com that, “Debate on the 2014 Farm Bill will start at 2:15 p.m. EST next Tuesday, February 4, according to Senate Agriculture Committee member Tom Harkin (D-IA) and others in the Senate.”

The article noted that, “‘I think we’ll have plenty of votes next Tuesday for it,’ said Harkin, who was a member of the conference committee that drafted the final language and, like several on the Senate Agriculture Committee, is a past chairman.

Harkin seemed pleased with the final outcome. The bill continues conservation programs that he promoted in the 2002 and 2008 farm bills. The bill also ends the direct payment program, ‘which was started in 1996 and was supposed to exist for only four years. We finally got rid of those,’ he said.”

Christopher Doering reported yesterday at The Des Moines Register Online that, “Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley said Thursday he would oppose the farm bill when it comes to a vote next week.

“Grassley said Congress missed a big opportunity to better define what it means to be ‘actively engaged’ in farming and limit how much an operator could receive, a measure the Iowa Republican has championed for several months.

“‘I want to be clear, I strongly support the business (of) agriculture. I’ve been involved in farming my whole life,’ Grassley said on the Senate floor. ‘But if I were to vote ‘yes’ on this bill, it would be an endorsement of the egregious manipulation of my payment limit reforms behind closed doors. I cannot in good conscience do that. Therefore, I will oppose (the) Agricultural Act of 2014.’”

A video replay of Sen. Grassley’s remarks from yesterday has been posted at FarmPolicy.com Online, and a prepared statement of Sen. Grassley’s floor remarks can be found here.

Other Senators also addressed Farm Bill issues on the floor yesterday.

Former Ag Committee Chairman Saxby Chambliss (R., Ga.) indicated (video replay at FarmPolicy Online) that, “I believe this bill achieves the promise of reform while tackling the single largest domestic issue facing our country: the debt and the deficit.”

“It is my sincere hope that the Senate will adopt this bipartisan conference report,” he noted.

Sen. Chambliss added that, “More than any other part of this bill, the upland cotton program represents fundamental reform, it meets our commitments in the Word Trade Organization and will resolve our dispute with Brazil.”

Sen. Michael Bennet (D., Colo.) pointed out (video replay at FarmPolicy Online) that, “It was an enormous disservice I think to rural America that we didn’t pass this bill two years ago, particularly when folks in my region, farmers and ranchers were facing an unprecedented drought.”

Missouri GOP Senator Roy Blunt indicated in remarks on the floor yesterday (video replay at FarmPolicy Online) of that, “I would also predict, Mr. President, that this is the last Farm Bill that won’t be driven by the new realities of people who want their food needs met in new ways–those food needs are going to be greater but we are going to be less concerned, I would expect five years from now, about farm surpluses and what happens if we grow too much than we are about how we meet the growing food needs of the world.”

And Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D., N.D.) explained yesterday (video replay at FarmPolicy Online) that, “The Farm Bill achieves the goals that puts our agricultural system in a strong position to continue our role– this country’s role, as a world leader in production agriculture.”

Meanwhile, in a teleconference yesterday, former Sen. Mike Johanns (R., Neb.) stated that, “The bill is the product of very hard-fought compromise. And that means that nobody gets exactly what they wanted. And at the end of the day, we end up with a bill that I do believe has merit to it. It’s not the bill that I would have written necessarily, but it does mean that our farmers and ranchers are a step closer to getting much needed updates to farm policy, and the alternative is not good.”

Sen. Johanns noted that, “I would have loved to have seen stronger payment limitations. That’s something I argued for when I was secretary of agriculture.”

There are some target prices that I believe are too high. I worry that distorts the market. Farmers start planting the crop because the reference price in the farm bill is set at a certain level, versus a level set for another crop. I think that’s especially true with southern agriculture.  I think that’s more true in the south than it will be in the Midwest,” he added.

Sen. Johanns indicated: “So, you know, it’s a little bit of a step forward, a step back. In total though, you know, the — what we’re seeing so far is the bill warrants support. Now, like I said, we’re making a final review and I reserve the right to point something out that’s really troubling, but so far, so good. And I’m anxious to get to the bill next week, after two years of delay really. So, I think it’s time to get a bill done.”

And in other news coverage, Reuters writer Cezary Podkul reported on Wednesday that, “Lobbyists opposed to mixing more ethanol in gasoline scored another victory on Wednesday after the U.S. House of Representatives passed a farm bill with a provision removing subsidies for biofuel blending pumps in rural areas.

“The provision, tucked into page 735 of the 949-page farm bill, could make it more difficult for gasoline blended with higher concentrations of ethanol to find its way to rural areas, where demand for the fuel is greatest.”

And Tim Carman reported yesterday at The Washington Post Online that, “Buried in more than 900 pages of the new farm bill is a small nationwide program that will allow low-income families to double their food stamp benefits at farmers markets.

“It’s not an empty gesture Congress is making to the poor after slashing $8 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program budget, advocates said. They see it as a program that will help tens of thousands of SNAP users eat more nutritious foods, perhaps avoiding a paradox of the poor: getting fat on food stamps.”

The Post item indicated that, “‘This program helps families buy healthy food from their local farmers markets, which also helps family farmers and boosts the economy,’ said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, who was instrumental in introducing the plan.

“The program is expected to provide matching funds to farmers markets, up to $20 million annually for five years, to incentivize SNAP recipients to buy more fresh fruits and vegetables with their benefits.”

Note also that the Congressional Record for Wednesday, January 29, 2014 contained the transcript of the debate on the Farm Bill Conference Report that took place in the House of Representatives.

The portion of the Congressional Record that focused on Farm Bill issues is available here.

And Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley A. Strassel penned an update in today’s paper which attempted to use Paul Harvey’s “So God Made a Farmer” speech as a template for a critical assessment of the Farm Bill.  The column, titled, “So God Made a Farm Bill,” noted that, “A famous speech about those who toil in the fields gets an update.”

 

Agricultural Economy

Bloomberg writers Elizabeth Campbell and Alan Bjerga reported yesterday that, “The cattle herd in the U.S., the world’s largest beef producer, probably fell to the smallest in 63 years, a Bloomberg survey showed. More than 80 percent of Texas, the biggest producing state, is still abnormally dry, and ranchers such as [fourth-generation Texas rancher Stayton Weldon] are struggling to recover. Fewer cattle will mean production in the $85 billion beef industry drops to a 20-year low in 2014, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said. Retail costs for the meat are at an all-time high, government data show.

Cattle futures rose 4.4 percent this month and touched $1.432 a pound on Jan. 22, the highest since trading began on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in 1964.”

Jacob Bunge and Erin McCarthy reported yesterday at The Wall Street Journal Online that, “Hillshire Brands Co.’s chief executive said Thursday that the packaged-meats processor expects sales to grow over the next six months even as it passes along ‘significantly higher’ commodities costs.

“The maker of Jimmy Dean sausages and Ball Park hot dogs will offset rising costs for pork and beef by boosting prices for its products and controlling its own expenses, CEO Sean Connolly said.”

The Journal article stated that, “Hillshire and other meat processors have grappled for months with rising prices for beef, pork and chicken. Cattle ranchers are commanding record-high prices because herds have shrunk following years of drought in the southern U.S. plains.”

A recent update at the United States Drought Monitor Online indicated that, “Drought and relatively mild temperatures continue to prevail across [California].”  (See related graph here).

Meanwhile, a recent update at the Kansas City Fed Online indicated that, “A high probability of lower corn prices in 2014 is leading to prospects of lower incomes for U.S. corn producers.  The latest issue of the ‘Main Street Economist’ from the Kansas City Fed explains that markets appear more convinced that corn prices are unlikely to match the levels of the past few years, underscoring the importance of liquidity for agricultural producers.”  The article is available here, “Less Uncertainty About Future Corn Prices Highlights Liquidity.”

With respect to trade issues, Eric Bradner reported yesterday at Politico that, “House Speaker John Boehner jabbed at President Barack Obama on trade policy Thursday, accusing the president of doing too little to get his own party to clear the way for a pair of blockbuster deals that Republicans already support.

“The Ohio Republican highlighted a split between the White House, which is pushing for legislative authority to fast-track the Pacific Rim and European trade deals through Congress without amendments, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who said he doesn’t want that legislation to advance in the Senate.

“‘We cannot pass this bill without his help,’ Boehner said of Obama at the House GOP’s annual retreat in Cambridge, Md. ‘And if this is one of his own priorities, you would think that he would have the Senate majority leader working with him to pass trade promotion authority in order to expand opportunities for our fellow citizens.’”

Annie Lowery reported in today’s New York Times that, “The White House said that the administration was aware of Mr. Reid’s position and that it would continue to campaign for fast-track authority and the two trade deals more generally.

“‘Leader Reid has always been clear on his position on this particular issue,’ said Jay Carney, Mr. Obama’s press secretary. The president, he said, ‘will continue to work to enact bipartisan trade-promotion authority.’

“The United States trade representative, Michael Froman, said the administration remained confident it could negotiate a comprehensive deal that would bolster the American economy — and win over skeptics.”

The Washington Post editorial board indicated today that, “The majority leader’s attitude suggests, however, that the president may need to step up the pressure — and that the Republicans aren’t the only ones on Capitol Hill who can undermine his agenda.”

 

Immigration

Kristina Peterson and Laura Meckler reported in today’s Wall Street Journal that, “House Republican leaders released a long-awaited set of principles Thursday to guide the chamber’s debate on immigration, a balancing effort aimed at drawing a majority of Republicans without alienating Democrats who also would be needed to pass a bill.”

The Journal writers explained that, “As expected, the GOP outline called for a path to citizenship for young people brought to the U.S. as children and granting a form of legal status allowing many other immigrants now in the U.S. illegally to stay here.

It also would make changes to the visa system for high-tech and agriculture workers, improve border security and mandate the use of a biometric system—using markers such as fingerprints—for visitors exiting as well as entering the U.S.”

The Journal article added that, “The House’s next step on immigration isn’t yet clear and it is uncertain what will advance in the chamber this year.”

David Nakamura and Paul Kane reported in today’s Washington Post that, “The House principles were being parsed by the White House, congressional Democrats and advocacy groups to determine whether there was a chance of achieving a major immigration deal that has eluded lawmakers for decades. The mood among most interest groups, and key Democratic leaders, was one of guarded optimism.”

Tom Nassif, Western Growers president and CEO, indicated yesterday that, “I applaud Speaker Boehner, Majority Leader Cantor, and Whip Kevin McCarthy for their efforts to move immigration forward in the House. The standards leadership have drafted represent a commitment to reforming our immigration system in a manner that respects the rule of law while strengthening the ability for agriculture to remain competitive in the world market. We especially applaud the specific acknowledgement of agriculture’s unique needs and look forward to working towards crafting a long term solution.”

And a statement yesterday from the Agriculture Workforce Coalition (AWC) noted that, “The [AWC] applauds the efforts of the House Republican Conference to release a set of reform principles during its policy retreat in Cambridge, Md. As GOP representatives engage in this process, the AWC asks that any immigration reforms ensure that farmers, ranchers and growers have access to a workforce, both in the short- and long-term. It is also vital that any reforms work for all types of agriculture, including those with both seasonal and year-round labor needs.  This requires a legislative solution that deals with the current unauthorized but experienced agricultural workforce and meets future needs through a new visa program that will admit a sufficient number of willing and able workers in a timely manner.

“Further, we strongly encourage the House of Representatives to consider immigration reform legislation in an expedited manner.  The crisis in agriculture is here today and we are the first to suffer irreparable damage.”

Keith Good