Former Congressman sees rocky path ahead for passage of a new farm bill

by George Jared (gjared@talkbusiness.net) 398 views 

Deep political divides in Congress may imperil efforts to craft a new farm bill in 2018, former U.S. Rep. Charlie Stenholm, D-Texas, said Friday at the 2017 Arkansas Rice Expo in Stuttgart.

Stenholm, a former ranking member on the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture was the keynote speaker at the seventh-annual event. The existing farm bill took effect in 2014, and is set to expire at the end of 2018. Farm bills typically run on five year cycles.

“Today’s political system is absolutely broken,” Stenholm said. “Too many in Congress believe compromise is a ‘four-letter word,’ and compromise is the only way to pass a bill.”

Agriculture is a multi-billion sector and the largest economic driver in Arkansas. Arkansas is the top rice producing state in the U.S. and is home to Stuttgart-based Riceland Foods, one of the biggest rice marketers in America.

The former congressional representative spoke about his 26-year run in politics as a time when members from across the aisle came together to pass important legislation. In his years since leaving Congress, Stenholm has been teaching at Tarleton State University and lobbying.

Keeping the nutritional elements of the Farm Bill will be critical to its passage. The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) is administered through the farm bill, and has been a lightening rod of controversy. Also known as the food stamp program, the federal governments spent $75 billion on the Snap program in 2015, and about 93% of that went directly to impoverished residents to buy food, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. About 45 million people benefit from the program, and 70% of families in the program have children.

Republican lawmakers have tried for years to cut SNAP spending or make it more difficult to take part in the program. Democrats have often tried to expand the program. There are significant legal issues that will have to be dealt with.

“There’s still a lot of alligators in the water on the 2018 Farm Bill. There are active efforts to split the two parts of the Farm Bill – agricultural from the SNAP programs, and that’s traditionally the coalition that gets the bill over the line,” said Harrison Pittman, director of the National Agricultural Law Center.

There’s no shortage of issues for the National Agricultural Law Center to consider, he said. The issues include state food labeling laws, crop insurance, lawsuits filed against states and the federal government because of regulations, suits filed by environmental groups, and others.

The biennial Rice College, an educational event was held Thursday. About 1,000 people attended the events, according to the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

“We had a good crowd and were very pleased at the numbers who attended Rice College and took part in the tour of the research plots at the Rice Research and Extension Center,” said Mark Cochran, vice president-agriculture for the University of Arkansas System. “It was good to see such a large cross-section of people here.”

While many of the expo events take place at the Grand Prairie Center each year, the expo also hosts field tours at the Rice Research and Extension Center. Several growers in attendance said they came to “up their growing game.” Joe Christian, Arkansas Rice Promotion Board member and a rice farmer, said he was eager to learn anything to help him with his rice.

The Arkansas Rice Expo began in 2011, growing out of an annual field day for rice producers. The event expanded from the Rice Research and Extension Center to include the Grand Prairie Center, which hosts more than 100 booths with family activities, seminars and demonstrations that showcase the broad range of expertise within the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

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