Farm Bill: As with any major piece of legislation, there are a multitude of issues and dynamics that create the political environment when Congress considers the reauthorization of the farm bill this year. There are policy structures, spending constraints, low commodity prices, vocal opponents, pending mid-term elections, floor time to consider the bill and competing legislative issues, just to name a few. Let’s look at a few of these to put the months ahead into their proper context.
First, there is a compressed legislative calendar of only 84 legislative days in the House between March 1st and October 12th, when Congress leaves for final campaigning and the election. Finding time to move a major bill on the House and Senate means clearing away other priority issues (immigration reform, welfare reform, infrastructure spending, appropriation bills, etc.) that have larger and broader political implications for the November elections. Leadership in both chambers need to be assured that a farm bill can be considered, debated and passed before floor time is granted to consider it--they need to be assured the votes are there to pass it. We have been working since last fall to see where members are on various key farm bill issues so that the Ag Committee knows what needs to be done. There may be one, or at most two, days to pass a farm bill in either chamber, so everyone has to be ready to go. A farm bill draft by the Committee chairmen will be tightly held until they are ready to move on it.
While there is much ado about the President’s proposed budget, no one who is writing the farm bill pays much attention to it because it is not binding. That is not unique to this President or either party. Congress writes and funds the bills and only needs the President to sign it in the end. So while the President praises things like crop insurance in public speeches, it is followed up with proposed cuts in funding. There is clearly a big difference between words and actions, but again, not much attention is paid to it.
When Congress voted in February on the Bipartisan Budget Act, a fix was included for both dairy and cotton that will increase the amount of money the Ag Committees have to write a bill. That is good news, and it was essential to help move a bill forward. The next question will be how SNAP or food stamps will be dealt with. It is always a big issue because it is critically important to urban members and it influences them on how they will vote on commodity programs. The Committees will have a similar amount of money to spend on other parts of the farm bill, but if increases are going to be made in areas such as research, then they will have to find money in other parts of the bill. It should also be noted that the Agriculture Committees have 37 programs that do not have funding for the next farm bill. This is precisely why a simple extension of the current farm bill is out of the question.
Farmers are hurting. Unlike the last farm bill, when markets were strong and farmers were quiet, there is a great need to be very vocal about having a strong safety net for producers. As noted by one prominent economist, the recent significant yield increases are about the only thing keeping farmer afloat. If there are any hiccups in production, producers face serious trouble, particularly with gradually rising interest rates. Stronger, stable and predictable trade policies would be very helpful for export-oriented commodities.
Teams of beet and cane growers will be making more than 300 visits to congressional offices in late February and early March to make it clear to members of Congress that if U.S. sugar policy is weakened in any way, producers will be driven out of business. We have been severely harmed by the dumping of Mexican sugar in our market for the past four years, and it has taken a toll on our farmers and our cooperatives.
Real farmers delivering key messages to help our industry is essential. Our opponents are extremely active in their efforts to oversupply the market and drive prices down. We have a tough battle ahead of us, and we will be very active, but cannot publicly reveal any strategies or tactics.
For Valentine’s Day, we took a survey of various chocolate gifts and compared the retail price with the cost of the sugar in the product. A large box of Russell Stover candies cost $40.00, but contained 46 cents of sugar. A huge Hershey Kiss that cost $15 had 12 cents of sugar. Lindt Truffles that sold for $9.99 had 4 cents of sugar, and a $16 box of Ghirardelli chocolates had 10 cents worth of sugar. Yet those companies and the National Confectioners Association are leading the efforts to drive sugar prices down and our farmers out of business. This goes to prove that the debate is over expanding user profits at the expense of the farmer, while the consumer has nothing to gain by lower sugar prices.
Once again, we want to thank past ASGA President Galen Lee for his tireless efforts to oversee and participate in so many issues and activities over the past two years. He did a wonderful job on behalf of all of the nation’s beet growers.
We also welcome our new President, Richard “Rick” Gerstenberger, Chairman of the Board of Michigan Sugar Company and our new Vice President, Dan Younggren, President of the Red River Valley Growers Association. These are very capable and talented men who will continue the strong leadership in our industry.
This is a reminder that 2018 ASGA internship applications are due no later than March 31st. It is an incredible experience for a young student, particularly in a farm bill year. Visit our website at americansugarbeet.org for an application.
Luther Markwart, author of Dateline Washington, is executive vice president of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association.