Conner: Be aggressive on the farm bill, prepare for ‘wild’ Trump ride
SAN DIEGO — Farmers need to be bold in their approach to Congress on the new farm bill and be prepared for a “wild ride” with the Trump administration, Chuck Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, told the National Farmers Union in San Diego on March 8.
Conner was an agriculture deputy secretary in the George W. Bush administration.
“If we enter with an apologetic attitude in terms of spending, liberals and conservatives will be energized. We are hurting. We should not be shy about advocating for the farm bill we need,” Conner said while speaking on a farm bill panel.
House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., has said the current farm bill only needs to be “tweaked,” but Conner said that with the current problems in the dairy and cotton sectors, “we will not be tweaking the farm bill” for those two sectors.
Title I — the commodity title of the bill — needs more resources or a reallocation or there will be fights within agriculture, Conner added. But he also said that some groups may go too far in their demands.
“There is a reasonableness standard,” he said.
Conner served on now-President Donald Trump’s campaign agricultural advisory committee, but he said today that farm leaders need to tap “into the rural populism” that brought Trump to office when approaching the farm bill. If farmers do tap into that populism, the ultraconservative and liberal groups won’t dominate the debate, he said.
Although he supported Trump and has been active in Republican politics since he worked for Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., when Lugar chaired the Senate Agriculture Committee, Conner said, “These are wild times in agriculture.”
His own organization, Conner said, has decided “to focus on the destination and ignore the journey.”
TRADE AND AG
Conner and NCFC have long been free-trade advocates. On trade, he said, people should look at the official Trump campaign policy statement, which recognizes the importance of trade to agriculture.
Trump wants to keep more manufacturing jobs in the U.S., Conner noted. “You really can’t be against that, but my fear is that you can’t have both.”
He said that in his many positions he has dealt with government and private-sector leaders from many foreign countries.
“I know if we put a stick in their eye what they’re going to do,” which is to attack U.S. agricultural products, he said.
Vincent Smith, a Montana State University agricultural economics professor and scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, took a different position.
There will be less funding for the agriculture side, he said, noting that for both liberals and conservatives, the focus will be on spending. He said he expects a $2 billion to $8 billion cut to farm programs, and that dairy and cotton groups will have a hard time making their case because they asked in the 2014 program for programs they now “dislike.”
Smith said farm leaders should consider “substantive reform,” including getting rid of the crop insurance program in favor of a mandatory disaster aid program. Disaster aid would cost $4 billion per year instead of the $8 billion to $9 billion per year that crop insurance costs, he predicted.
The $2.5 billion that goes to crop insurance companies should be spent on agricultural research, he said.
Smith made it clear he does not think more money should be spent on his own field of agricultural economics, but on plant and animal research.
Although there are now commodity surpluses and low prices for both grains and livestock, “Commodity producers need research to stay ahead on innovation,” he said.
Smith also said he believes Trump should follow the Obama administration in moving away from the food aid program that ships commodities from the U.S. on American vessels to countries in trouble, instead of sending cash. That program costs $1.4 billion, and $350 million goes to shipping, he said, adding that he believes the question is “an ethical as well as an economic issue,” because more people could be fed if money, instead of food, were sent.
Shippers argue that their vessels can be used in time of war, but Smith said that Stephanie Mercier, a former Senate Agriculture Committee economist now with the Farm Journal Foundation, has written that none of the American vessels used for food aid have been used in a war since the Vietnam era.
Of the new president, Smith added, “The Trump administration is a random-number generator.” Trump officials, he said, “throw out numbers, and don’t know where they come from.”
National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson said he agreed with Smith on food aid, which he acknowledged is a different position from most agriculture groups that defend food aid, especially in the current period of low prices.
Conner said he thinks there are arguments on both sides on food aid, and that a policy somewhere in the middle will prevail.
Johnson said it will be vital for agriculture to stick together on the next farm bill, particularly in the current atmosphere, to argue for more money.
In the last farm bill debate, he noted, “every group had a different farm bill.”
The NFU’s bill never got introduced but it did raise the issue of commodity prices, he noted.
All the panelists agreed that economic reports, which are written in national terms, do not reveal the pain that producers are feeling on an individual level.
Johnson acknowledged that, as economists have said, “this is not 1985,” when the farm crisis was at its worst. He noted that interest rates are low, but rising.
“It could be the early ’80s” when the farm crisis was starting, he said.
Johnson said he believes that more money may be added to the commodity title but he fears that “the journey” Conner cited “will lead to an enormous increase in the budget deficit.” ❖
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