Agriculture beginning to plan now for 2018 Farm Bill

By Trista Crossley

Battle scars from the last farm bill debate have just barely faded, but according to industry representatives, it’s already time for agriculture to start thinking about the next farm bill, due in 2018.

“It didn’t seem like agriculture had a loud enough voice in negotiations on the last farm bill,” explained Michelle Hennings, executive director of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers (WAWG). “We need to bring all the commodities together and figure out what agriculture needs for the next one, which is right around the corner. We need to start telling our story now and educating decision makers in order to defend what we currently have and fight for any changes that should be made.”

WAWG has stepped up to the plate, recently surveying members to find out what they thought of the 2014 Farm Bill. Nearly 66 percent of respondents said they were satisfied with the Agricultural Risk Coverage (ARC) and Price Loss Coverage (PLC) programs with 58 percent saying protection against price risk was their top priority. Nearly 87 percent said ARC and PLC were still attractive options for wheat farmers.

“It’s important that we protect crop insurance, which is always a target for cuts,” Hennings said. “We need to educate legislators so they understand how critical it is for farmers to have a safety net to fall back on when disaster strikes.”

Joshua Tonsager, legislative director for the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG), agreed, saying that efforts to cut funding for farm bill programs, such as crop insurance and conservation programs, are already starting.

“We are concerned about early efforts to undermine the farm bill. We are going to see more attacks coming after insurance. The earlier we can get ahead of that, the better we’ll be able to defend against cuts in those programs,” he said. “We also need to figure out if the last farm bill is actually working. Are the commodity programs implemented in such a way that they are helping producers? If not, what should we be doing to change that?”

Farm bills are passed every five years, but the debate over the last farm bill was so contentious it took an extra year of negotiations, giving us a 2014 Farm Bill instead of a 2013 Farm Bill. By the end, there was even talk of splitting the farm bill into two separate bills, one for nutrition and one for farm programs. Most ag stakeholders fought that suggestion, fearing that without a coalition that included nutrition interests, many in Congress would be unwilling to support the farm programs.

In the end, the 2014 Farm Bill was projected to spend $956 billion over 10 years, with an expected savings of $16.5 billion. Title I, which includes the ARC/PLC programs, took a $14.3 billion cut and was expected to cost $27 billion over 10 years. It seems like the ink was barely dry on the 2014 Farm Bill before stakeholders were fending off attempts to balance federal budgets through more cuts to crop insurance and commodity programs. Every cut to the current farm bill means negotiations on the 2018 Farm Bill will start at a lower spending level, a harsh blow to an industry that is already struggling with extremely low commodity prices.

“I think we are going to have to keep making the programs defendable for what we have,” said Nicole Berg, WAWG national legislation chair, adding that telling agriculture’s story is one way to do that. “Maybe the industry needs to create a program for public outreach in regards to the farm bill and what it does. There needs to be some outside-of-the-box thinking.”

Sequestration has also taken a significant chunk out of many farm commodity programs since it took effect in 2013. Sequestration was designed to enforce federal budget goals through permanent, across-the-board cuts in federal spending when expenditures are estimated to exceed congressionally mandated levels. In FY2013, sequestration cost agricultural programs 5 percent, while fiscal years 2014 and 2015 were around 7 percent, according to the Congressional Research Service.

“One of the issues WAWG has been talking to our national leaders about is how can we prevent sequestration again, including cuts to the Market Access Program (MAP) and the Foreign Market Development (FMD) Program,” Hennings said. The MAP and FMD programs provide matching grants for market development programs all over the world. Studies have shown that on average, every $1 spent on market development sees a return of $35 in economic benefits. “We also need policy that would protect commodity programs from sequestration cuts, because 7 percent is a big chunk out of a farmer’s bottom line. With such low commodity prices, farmers need that extra 7 percent in order to even try to break even.”

Currently, Washington state has two legislators who are on the House Agriculture Committee: Rep. Suzan DelBene and Rep. Dan Newhouse. Berg says that gives Washington farmers some influence on farm bill discussions.

“I felt the ag industry gave up a lot in the last farm bill, but we are still treated the same as programs that weren’t cut,” she said, pointing out that to many farmers, 7 percent could be the difference between surviving to farm another year or going out of business.

NAWG is talking to other commodity groups about collaborating on the upcoming farm bill. They are also developing a survey they hope to push out to growers this summer.

“Agriculture is going to have to come together,” Hennings said. “No one commodity can do it on its own. It’s going to take teamwork, and I think agriculture realizes that.”