Farm groups work on farm bill strategies, say sustainability, climate goals must vary by region
INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — A panel of representatives of farm groups said here today their organizations are developing strategies for the 2023 farm bill, and that they expect to announce those strategies sometime this spring or summer.
Speaking on a panel at the National Crop Insurance Industry Convention, several of the lobbyists also said that the Biden administration’s climate change agenda should reflect the differences in crops and the climate mitigation and sustainability strategies that would best apply to different parts of the country.
American Association of Crop Insurers President Scott Graves, who moderated the panel, asked the lobbyists to describe their groups’ farm bill activities, their views on the impact of the Biden administration’s focus on climate-smart agriculture, and how they think the 2022 congressional elections will affect the 2023 farm bill.
Jake Westlin of the National Association of Wheat Growers said the group is working on its farm bill priorities.
Westlin stressed that the group is trying to educate officials that wheat has six varieties and that it is grown in many areas of the country, making a single policy on climate change mitigation unworkable.
Wayne Stoskopf of the National Corn Growers Association said the group “does not have a list of asks or priorities today” for the farm bill. But the group may announce policy changes when members meet in conjunction with the Commodity Classic in New Orleans in March, he said.
Because of the up and down in demand due to a fluctuation of exports to China and uncertainty in the ethanol market, corn growers are concerned about the future of demand and “are looking for ways to improve our market standing.”
Corn growers had recognized the need for the Risk Management Agency’s new Post Application Coverage Endorsement (PACE) now offered in select counties in 11 states for non-irrigated corn, he said. (PACE provides payments for the projected yield lost when producers are unable to apply the post nitrogen application during the V3-V10 corn growth stages due to field conditions created by weather.)
Corn farmers don’t want mandates and instead of regulation want incentives to achieve climate-related goals, he added.
The uncertainty surrounding the Democrats’ Build Back Better initiative and the upcoming elections make it difficult for Congress to focus, Stoskopf said.
Noting that there are conservation provisions in the Build Back Better proposal, he said the BBB “is not dead.”
In Congress “there is still work to be done but no one knows what work to do,” he said.
Robbie Minnich of the National Cotton Council acknowledged that cotton prices are high but said the industry is facing problems with shipping its products overseas and farmers are worried about how they will afford higher priced inputs if cotton prices go down.
He noted that the cotton industry has developed a sustainability protocol because brands and countries had said they will only buy sustainably produced cotton by 2025.
U.S. cotton did not want to be “shut out” of a brand or a country, he said. The U.S. industry has set goals for 2025, but needs to show “constant improvement.” There will be third party verification of the program, he added.
For the 2023 farm bill debate, “We have to be prepared to defend what we have,” Minnich said. A lot of people are “pretty happy” with the current farm program, he said, noting that there will be people who want changes but the general structure is there.
Minnich pointed out that the number of new members of Congress since the last farm bill was passed “is extraordinarily high.” One factor that may complicate writing the farm bill is that many of the new congressional aides don’t know each other because COVID-19 has restricted their activities.
Robert Guenther of the International Fresh Produce Association said the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance, which represents growers of fruits, vegetables, dried fruit, tree nuts, nursery plants and other products, has started to have meetings and wants to come up with recommendations to Congress by early summer;
The issue for his members, Guenther said, is “supply chain, supply chain, supply chain.”
“It is a huge, huge challenge right now to move produce around the world,” Guenther said.
The concern about labor has shifted from longtime shortages of farm labor to every level all the way to retail and food service workers, he said.
On climate issues, Guenther said it is clear “trees and vines have a built-in benefit.”
On the farm bill, Guenther noted that whether the Republicans or the Democrats control the houses of Congress, the same “Big Four” are going to be in their positions leading the Agriculture committees: Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and John Boozman, R-Ark., and Reps. David Scott, D-Ga., and Glenn “G.T.” Thompson, R-Pa.
But he also noted that of the four, the only one who has been a leader on a previous farm bill is Stabenow.
Ben Mosely of the USA Rice Federation said that rice is in a different position from the other commodities because the price of rice has not gone up as much while the price of inputs has.
Rice gets “drowned out” in the conversation about rising commodity prices, Mosely said.
Because rice is raised in flooded fields and does not face the weather variability that other commodities face, crop insurance has not been its most important farm program. But he said there have been changes to crop insurance policies so that there is more crop insurance acreage insured every year.
With prices high there is not an appetite to do a major overhaul of the farm bill, Mosely said. The group has a farm bill task force meeting and the members of the task force will come to Washington in a couple weeks, he added.
He also noted that rice is grown in six states and said it has already had a sustainability initiative with Ducks Unlimited to provide food for birds.
But he said he worries that the flooding of the fields, which is good for the birds, will be criticized on climate grounds because every time a field is flooded the process creates methane.
He said he hopes the climate mitigation strategies are regional. “If a rice mill goes away, a whole community goes away,” he said.
On dealing with Capitol Hill, Mosely said, “It is extremely difficult to build relationships with people at any time and worse during COVID. It’s hard to ask people for things when you haven’t met them.”
It’s very difficult to put a cover crop on a rice field, he said. “Our cover crops are ducks,” he noted. USDA is focused on soil health and is unlikely to pay rice farmers for flooding fields to establish the bird habitat, he added.
Kellis Moss of Ducks Unlimited noted that the wetlands conservation group has been “happy to be a partner with the crop insurance industry” since 2014 when Congress said farmers participating in crop insurance had to comply with conservation requirements and prohibited producers from planting on converted wetlands or converting wetlands for crop production.
Since that time, Moss said, Ducks Unlimited has urged farmers to take out crop insurance.
Farm bill policy is currently developed at the staff level within the organization but there will be board members coming to Washington this spring, he said.
Noting that the flooding of rice fields is important for bird habitat, particularly in California, Moss said his organization is watching the development of climate-smart strategies and what commodities the Agriculture Department will consider climate smart.
“For carbon sequestration wetlands are about as good as we can do,” Moss said, adding that he believes “the good work we have done should be ramped up.”
On the farm bill, he said, it will be important for agriculture to be unified because “there will be people who will grind the gears and try to slow things down.”
Skylar Sowder of the Farm Credit Council said that the co-op banks are in the process of developing farm policy and hope to make an announcement by summer.
Sowder said the things that keep farmers up at night are the same as those that keep lenders up.
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