Conaway urges more MFP payments; Peterson fears exports won’t grow
As Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue testified recently before the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, the ranking member on the committee, called for another round of Market Facilitation Program payments this year, but House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said he fears President Donald Trump’s tweet signaling the possibility of more aid means the trade agreements won’t pay off soon.
In an opening statement, Conaway said, “The first and second MFP programs were as justified as they were critical to our farmers and ranchers — and I strongly believe that unless something gives here very soon, an announcement of an MFP-III will also be absolutely vital to the survival of our producers.
“I am grateful that the president communicated directly with farmers, ranchers, and rural America last week to reassure them that he and his administration are going to continue to stand by them, come hell or high water.
“For those who have ideas on how to improve the MFP so it works better for their producers, they should talk with the secretary about their ideas rather than criticize this vital assistance that literally means the difference between farming another year or losing the farm.
“To the critics, I would just say, they ought to be a part of the solution rather than always being a part of the problem,” Conaway concluded.
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Peterson, in his opening statement, said, “We’ve seen the farm income numbers come out for 2019. If it weren’t for payments to farmers through the Market Facilitation Program and disaster payments, farm income would have been in the tank last year. A farm economy propped up by payments from the government isn’t a healthy farm economy.
“I really hope the markets return to normal. But the president’s comments about a third payment also don’t give me a lot of hope that we’ll see tangible benefits from these new trade deals anytime soon. That’s a promise that the administration made to farmers, and without it, the farm economy isn’t going to recover.”
Perdue has said repeatedly that he believes exports will grow and another round of trade aid won’t be needed. He also emphasized that the trade aid is not intended to shore up prices, and if exports grow but prices don’t rise the Trump administration will not provide more trade aid.
Conway told Perdue that a provision related to the WHIP Plus disaster program has penalized farmers who bought higher levels of crop insurance.
“Unfortunately, an unintentional glitch in the WHIP Plus formula means that farmers who bought higher levels of coverage are penalized more than those who bought lower coverage in the case of unharvested acres,” Perdue said.
“I know that this is not your intent, and I believe that USDA did not desire this result — but it is a serious problem, and I think it ought to be fixed so we honor the intent of the law and your conviction that disaster aid should never undermine crop insurance,” he said.
Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, who chairs the House Agriculture nutrition subcommittee, said there is consensus that farmers in trouble should be compensated, but she said that the same standard should be applied to people who need food. Fudge asked Perdue if he would delay the Trump administration rules for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in light of the likely spread of coronavirus. Perdue said he had no plans to delay the rules but that he has flexibility to provide benefits in the case of a health crisis, just as in a natural disaster.
Rep. Antonio Delgado, D-N.Y., said that the way the payments had been made indicated that the Trump administration is more interested in the well-being of the big farmers than the small. But Perdue said that people had qualified for the benefits based on their loss of exports.
Rep. Angie Craig, D-Minn., asked why the president would propose more aid when he proposed a budget to “gut federal crop insurance.” Perdue did not answer that question directly but said that if Trump tells him to create an aid package, he will do it.
Craig said she does not know how farmers’ lenders can ignore the president’s tweet.
Perdue expressed frustration at the difficulty of hiring employees at USDA. In the current economy, Perdue said, if people apply on a national basis they don’t want to move from where they are living.
Late in the hearing, Perdue said that USDA is working on a new program of meat labeling that would not violate a World Trade Organization ruling that said a previous country-of-origin label discriminated against Mexican and Canadian meat.
Perdue said USDA is considering a label that would read “slaughtered and processed in the United States,” but believes it cannot say “born in the United States” because that would violate WTO standards. ❖
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