New Farm Bill in 2018 will be difficult task, consultant says

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 737 views 

An Arkansas farming consultant said Thursday (Feb. 1) he expects efforts to pass a comprehensive Farm Bill in Congress will be difficult in 2018 as rising deficits and other national priorities take precedence over enacting new legislation to bolster the nation’s struggling farming economy.

“We still have a lot of people out there, particularly in Washington, D.C., that don’t really think we need a farm program in this country,” said Pine Bluff attorney and farming consultant David Bridgforth. “Those who don’t think we need a strong farm program need to educate themselves because we most definitely do.”

Bridgforth, a principal at Ramsay, Bridgforth, Robinson and Raley LLP in Pine Bluff, was one of three speakers at the third annual Agri Summit in White Hall, sponsored by Simmons Bank. In his hourlong speech, the south Arkansas farming expert offered a broad overview of the upcoming expected battle in Congress over a new Farm Bill, which expires on Sept. 30, 2018.

Bridgforth began his presentation with some trepidation, saying he was being asked to talk about legislation he has not seen. To date, chairmen of the House and Senate Agriculture committees also have not released a first draft of a new Farm Bill, but have announced their intentions to begin legislative hearings before the March recess if budget projections and funding measures are in place.

The farming consultant told the more than 350 attendees at the annual farming conference that he senses Congressional lawmakers are not eager to immediately take up comprehensive farm legislation following a long fight to pass a historic 500-page tax cut measure in December and other key battles ahead on immigration and U.S. infrastructure.

Bridgforth said when the last Farm Bill was approved by Congress in 2014, the nation’s agri-driven rural economy was thriving and upbeat. Today, he said, farming income has been in a long downturn and debate over new policy is likely to center on ways to improve crop prices and cut costs to some of the subsidy programs that aid the nation’s farmers, ranchers and agriculture goods producers.

“Generally speaking, you can kind of get an idea about what kind of farm bill you are going to have based on how the farming economy is operating at the time the bill comes up for consideration,” he said. “If you remember the last Farm Bill, we were coming off a great year and crop prices were high and farm income was at record levels.”

Bridgforth continued: “As for today, we are much different situation. Farm income has been declining for three straight years (and) the bottom line is the farming economy is not in the best of shape right now. While that normally would be a good – from a farming perspective a good thing, all of the budget issues we face kind of offset that.”

And because of rising deficits and funding concerns on immigration, U.S. infrastructure improvements and other priorities of the Trump administration, Bridgforth expressed fears that the debate on a new farming bill will focus on staying within budgetary guidelines.

The Congressional Budget Office’s newest baseline for U.S. farm programs was released in June. These projections identify expected outlays for farm bill program spending, assuming existing programs continue without changes, and will serve as an indicator of program spending available to Congress as crafting of the 2018 farm bill kicks into higher gear. Projections under the 2014 farm bill estimates the program would cost U.S. taxpayers about $3.7 billion a year. The updated CBO now expects costs of about $7 billion over the next four years.

“You can rest assured there will be efforts to look for cost savings,” said the Pine Bluff attorney, who expected the CBO’s baseline projections to be revised again in the first quarter.

The agriculture consultant’s assessment comes just over a week after U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue unveiled key legislative principles for a new omnibus farm bill during a roundtable meeting at Penn State University on Jan. 24.

On Jan. 19, Perdue and Gov. Asa Hutchinson held a similar roundtable at the Governor’s Mansion with Arkansas industry leaders as a part of the USDA’s efforts to get input from farming officials on critical issues facing the nation’s farming economy.

According to USDA officials, Perdue has met with farming officials in more than 30 states as part of the Agriculture Department’s “listening tour” to help the Trump administration draft new farming rules and regulations over the next nine months.

In last week’s outline of U.S. farming policy, Perdue said President Donald Trump’s priorities for a new Farm Bill will focus on nine key principles. They include farm production and conservation; trade and foreign affairs; food nutrition and consumers services; marketing and regulatory programs; food safety and inspections; research, education and economics; rural development; natural resources and environment; and farming management.

“These principles will be used as a road map – they are our way of letting Congress know what we’ve heard from the hard-working men and women of American agriculture. While we understand it’s the legislature’s job to write the farm bill, USDA will be right there providing whatever counsel Congress may request or require,” Perdue said.

In a draft of the legislative principles, one of the key goals outlined by Perdue and the USDA was to help Congress craft a new Farm Bill that is beneficial to the farming economy and “provides a fiscally responsible Farm Bill that reflects the Administration’s budget goals.”

Although Bridgforth said he was not optimistic that Congress will draft, debate and approve a new Farm Bill by the end of September, he did say he believes there will likely be an extension of the 2014 omnibus legislation at current budget levels. At some point, he said, Congress hopefully will pass new legislation once other matters are sorted out.

“There are number of issues going on in Washington that are taking time and attention away from things that deserve time and attention,” Bridgforth said. “I talked recently with a contact of mine up there and the feeling I get is that they are so distracted on a number of other issues and that’s all they’re focusing on.”

After Bridgforth’s presentation, farming economist and keynote speaker Dr. David Kohl gave a wide-ranging speech on the future of the U.S. farming industry. Kohl is a professor emeritus in the Agricultural and Applied Economics Department at Virginia Tech and president of AgriVisions LLC, an agriculture consulting firm.

At the beginning of his 90-minute speech, the well-traveled economist noted that it is important for the Trump administration to sign a new North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) agreement soon, or the nation’s farming economy would suffer.

“I tell you what, the next four months are going to be very critical in the United States of America’s agriculture community. You know why? The international trade agreements are going to be very, very critical to your pocketbook …,” Kohl told the roomful of farmers at the White Hall Community Center.

Before Kohl and Bridgforth spoke, Jay Mahaffey from Monsanto’s Learning Center in Scott, Miss., gave an update on new research on corn, soybeans and cotton. Monsanto’s center in Southern Mississippi provides growers and producers across the Delta the ability to tour research and demonstration plots focused on highlighting advanced agronomic studies.