November 12, 2019

Senate Ag Committee Farm Bill Hearing

At a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on Tuesday, lawmakers reviewed the implementation of the Farm Bill after one year and heard testimony from farmers and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

In his opening remarks, Chairman Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) indicated that, “As our first order of business it’s only right that we recognize and appreciate our leader of the past four years and the tremendous amount of good work she accomplished during a very difficult time.

Senator Stabenow is a dedicated and fierce leader of agriculture policy whose tenacity successfully carried a farm bill across the goal line when many believed it wouldn’t get done.”

Chairman Roberts also pointed out that, “I am humbled and honored to serve as your Chairman, the first in modern history to have held the gavel for this illustrious Committee in both the House and Senate.”

Also at Tuesday’s hearing, Chairman Roberts stated that, “Today’s hearing is special. Not only are we beginning our work in this new Congress, but we are also going about things a little differently. Today, we will conduct our first oversight hearing of the one year old Farm Bill by hearing from farmers first, then the administration.”

Rich Felts, a producer from Kansas, noted that, “Without question, crop insurance has been the cornerstone of the safety net for Kansas producers over the past decade. Like most farmers, I can tell you about my crop production year‐by‐year just by remembering some very significant weather events. In 2007 we had the Easter freeze in April that killed off nearly all of the wheat and then in late June and early July we experienced what is considered to be the flood of record on my property next to the Verdigris River. Not only did we have no wheat production, the flood decimated our corn and the waters didn’t recede soon enough to allow us to rehabilitate the soil in time for us to plant soybeans or any other crop. In 2011 we had a March that felt like July. It was so hot that whatever wheat did produce grain was harvested somewhere between 30 and 45 days ahead of normal, with about 60 percent of our normal production; the farther west you drove the worse it was.”

Mr. Felts added that, “Then came 2012. This committee is no stranger to the nationwide impacts of the drought that year and Kansas was no different. By this time my friends in western Kansas were three to five years into a drought. If it were not for the federal crop insurance and the Livestock Forage Program (LFP), many would not be farming today.”

In the discussion portion of the hearing, Iowa farmer Clay Mitchell noted that, “But crop insurance is not a way to get rich, it’s a matter of survival, and very small differences in the way that crop insurance is supported make the difference for a lot of small family farmers, whether or not they survive.

And how many gravel roads do we look up and down where there used to be 20 farmers and now there are two? And some of that is driven by technology, up to a certain point, and then it’s driven by other things after that. It’s driven by pricing power that some people have over some aspects of the supply chain, it’s driven by asymmetry between the upside and the downside in business size. Crop insurance is one of the key aspects of being able to help family farmers survive.”

An article on Tuesday at the Albany Herald (Ga.) Online reported that, “[Southwest Georgia farmer Ronnie Lee] talked to the senators about the importance of insurance programs in the farm [bill] that are directed at major Georgia crops…Lee said, ‘policy should strive to provide opportunities for effective risk management.'”

At the second panel of Tuesday’s hearing, Sec. Vilsack also commented on crop insurance and noted that, “Mr. Chairman, we certainly agree that the cornerstone of the safety net program is in fact crop insurance, and I’m proud of the efforts at RMA to extend significantly the number of policies that are written and the number of crops that are covered. The last time I checked it was well over 350 crops that actually now have crop insurance protection. As I indicated, we will continue to expand those protections, particularly in the specialty crop area, as we get sufficient and accurate data to ensure that whatever we do is actuarially sound. But there is a real desire on the part of RMA to continue to find ways to make it happen, if you will.

“And I’m pleased with the fact that we’ve had a net increase in the number of companies writing crop insurance in the last 12 to 24 months. We’ve lost a couple, but we’ve gained four, so that the net is two, so I think it’s an indication that this is still an industry that can continue to expand [appropriately] and financially. We expect and anticipate roughly $8 billion plus to be invested by taxpayers in this system over the course of the next several years. And the payouts in the last time since I’ve been Secretary equal $55 billion, so it’s obviously an important program.”

Ranking member Stabenow brought up the fact that recent CBO projections show that estimated Farm Bill savings could be lower than projected, due to the decline market value of many crops, and inquired about “actively engaged” issues.

Here is a portion of her discussion on this issue with Sec. Vilsack:

Sen. Stabenow: “And finally, Mr. Chairman, one of the things I’m concerned about is that we’re hearing that the USDA feels constrained when defining actively engaged on the farm. I know this is a very challenging issue going forward. But I just want to clarify that the lead negotiators, those of us in the House and the Senate, understood the existing authority and discretion of the department, and want to work with you on this.

“When we look at the fact that CBO is estimating that the PLC and marketing loan programs could pay out as much as 16 billion more than we anticipated, it’s very important we have accountability, and [those go] actually to those who are farming. And so it is very important.

I would just urge you that in our bill, nothing in the farm bill is preventing the USDA from exercising existing authorities or discretion to make the definition as clear and strong as possible. And I think for the effectiveness and the integrity of the programs it’s really important that the department move forward on this, and look forward to working with you on that.”

Sec. Vilsack: “The way in which the farm bill was crafted strongly suggests that whatever we do does not specifically apply directly to family farming operations. Also, with reference to family farm corporations, the limitation of one management exemption applies. So what we are focusing on are the general partnerships and limited partnerships that have often been the source of concerns.

And that is where our jurisdiction, I think, is relative to actively engaged, and that’s what we’re focused on. And we will definitely come up with hopefully a more concrete and more specific definition so that folks understand precisely what applies and what doesn’t apply. But I think it is important to point out that it’s primarily focused on partnerships, limited and general partnerships.

Sen. Stabenow: “I just want to stress that you do have the authority, and I appreciate and hope that you’re going to move forward to use the authority you have, so thank you.”

A news release Tuesday from Sen. John Thune (R., S.D.) indicated that, “[Sen. Thune] today questioned U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack at a 2014 Farm Bill implementation hearing before the Senate Agriculture Committee about Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) Mid-Contract Management policies and a backlog of undetermined wetlands in eastern and northeastern South Dakota.”

With respect to nutrition issues, Sec. Vilsack noted in prepared remarks that, “More than half of SNAP recipients are children and the elderly, and less than 7% of households receive cash assistance. Among SNAP households with at least one working-age, non-disabled adult, more than half work – and more than 80 percent work in the year before or after receiving SNAP. With a stronger economy SNAP participation is beginning to gradually decline. Comparing Fiscal Year 2014 with Fiscal Year 2013, average participation decreased 2.3 percent or by approximately 1.1 million people. While the economic trends are encouraging, SNAP remains critical to millions of Americans.”

Chairman Roberts briefly commented on nutrition issues at Tuesday’s hearing, in a side remark he noted that, “I am now eating a lot of school lunches in Kansas. I am very worried about small, very small schools having a lot of trouble with the regs, school nutritionists having a tough time keeping up, even losing the school lunch program, as well as the much larger districts that we have in Johnson County. Let me just say that I’m not as enthusiastic, perhaps, about the servings.”

Recall that on Wednesday and Thursday the House Agriculture Committee will be exploring nutrition issues in greater detail (See related tweets below).

Keith Good

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