WASHINGTON — State agriculture officials across the country tried this month to remind a new set of lawmakers in Congress of their states’ needs for a robust farm law to address a number of food issues.
Members of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture gathered in Washington for their annual winter meeting in mid-February. They urged Congress to deliver a timely, fully funded agriculture bill to address a broad range of issues affecting agriculture, including technology, conservation and foreign trade.
During the two-day conference, coalition members highlighted the bill’s bipartisan history and the importance of educating a new Congress on stocks that support America’s food systems in an ever-changing economic and environmental landscape.
State officials have urged Congress to include nutrition programs in the agriculture bill, as previous versions have done. They also advocated for stronger crop insurance and more funding for research, animal safety and conservation programs.
“It’s just a responsibility that we have to make sure that all of our producers, our economies, our communities of all sizes have a forward-thinking, fully funded agriculture bill,” NASDA Chairman Doug Miyamoto, director of the Department of Agriculture of the Wyoming, said in an interview.
Miyamoto was nominated to his statewide job by former Republican Gov. Matt Mead in 2015.
“We have to make sure we do it correctly,” he added. “We can’t start fragmenting programs and ideas into the farm account, and then hope that we’ll be able to get a complete and timely farm account.”
Mike Naig, secretary of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Republican-elect, said it was important for lawmakers, especially those who weren’t in office when the 2018 bill was written, to remember that the measure is not just an agricultural bill, but an agribusiness bill.
“There are a lot of new members of Congress who have never had a chance to vote on a farm bill,” Naig said. “A lot of work needs to be done to educate people about this.”
Kate Greenberg, the Colorado Department of Agriculture commissioner nominated by Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, also argued that she considered nutrition and agricultural policy in the same bill to maintain the “tipping point of nexus between produce and consumers.”
He added that members of Congress must set aside their differences to strengthen the “bread and butter of the American economy.”
“Let’s keep our heads down and focus on the impact of policy and appropriations on the American agricultural landscape,” he said.
The five-year agriculture bill does not appropriate funding, which Congress does each year in separate bills. But it authorizes dollar amounts for discretionary programs that set expectations for actual expense bills. Other programs authorize mandatory funding not subject to annual decisions by legislators.
Lloyd Knight, deputy director of the Idaho State Department of Agriculture, encouraged Congress to provide certainty to farmers across the country by ending the farm bill before the current permits expire on Sept. 30.
Ensure the new technology, foreign markets and the safety net
Mike Strain, the Republican commissioner of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, has advocated increasing funding for research and technology development, especially as demand continues to outstrip supply for U.S. agricultural products.
Louisiana’s sugar production, for example, needs to be twice as efficient as it is today, he said.
Jeff Witte, director of the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, said the research provisions would also be critical for Western specialty crop farmers facing worker shortages.
Farmers in the state switched from horticultural crops to nut crops because labor was cheaper, he said. But that trend could lead to an unwanted imbalance in what food crops are available to consumers, she added.
“If we don’t start investing in technology that can harvest other crops, we will fall too far behind,” he said.
Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industry Commissioner Rick Pate, a Republican, said developing foreign markets through the Foreign Agricultural Service should be a priority in the bill.
US Undersecretary of Commerce and Foreign Agricultural Affairs Alexis Taylor said in a Feb. 1 Senate hearing that for every dollar the US invests in developing foreign markets, US farmers see a return of $24 in the value of their products.
“They think there is a huge return on the travel we get to do and the marketing program that they find through our organization,” Pate said. “So we just have to keep bringing the farmer story to the people.”
Naig added that the new farm law must modernize and strengthen the federal crop safety net.
“I just don’t want to see anything that undermines the importance of the crop insurance program,” he said.
Build food safety and conservation programs
Naig said farmers have a broad interest in market-based environmental incentives in the upcoming agricultural law. Concepts like soil health and carbon sequestration have entered the agribusiness mainstream, but farmers are still cautious about their costs.
“What needs to be recognized is that there are costs associated with implementing some of these practices,” said Naig. “So if you want to see meaningful adoption, how can you help them get a return on that investment? If you do it right and do it right, you’re going to get an implementation on a scale that you couldn’t otherwise get.
Jordan Seger, deputy director of the Indiana State Department of Agriculture, said he hoped to see federal encouragement of public-private conservation partnerships. He publicized Indiana’s work with the Nature Conservancy and Enterprise Rent-a-Car to regrow wetlands and forests in the state.
“For about a dollar, we can get about seven dollars or more from the federal government, put it all into private lands, and leverage each other’s resources and expertise to get things done quickly,” Seger said.
Randy Romanski, who was appointed secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Commerce and Consumer Protection by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, said Congress should use the agriculture bill to better manage animal health , noting the bird flu outbreaks that have plagued the country since 2015.
Congress could create a national alert network for emerging animal diseases, such as avian flu and African swine fever, he said.
“Clearly, this is something that crosses state lines,” Romanski said. “We need to have systems in place to track, respond to and eradicate diseases when they arise.”
Establish terms for state and federal cooperation
Coalition members said Congress should offer clear guidance and resources so states can make choices that suit their constituents.
The federal government should avoid imposing mandates on conservation practices, Seger said. Greater collaboration among USDA agencies would also reduce paperwork for states, she added.
Knight, of Idaho, added that Congress must ensure that federal programs are fully staffed. Clear implementation guidelines that are flexible enough to meet the different needs of farmers across the country would also be key, she said.
“It’s a big country with a lot of problems and a lot of assets,” Knight said.
Colorado’s Greenberg said the bill also presents an opportunity to strengthen climate-related policies.
“The problem with climate change is that we are all affected and our farmers and ranchers are on the front lines,” said Greenberg. “They are the ones who feel and experience the changes in the environment, and they know it. So how do we deal with it, not just state by state, but as a nation?
Chronology in question
Panel members predicted that Congress would end by the fall 2023 deadline or next year.
Strain said he believes the negotiations will likely extend into 2024.
Regardless of the timing, the bill needs to be funded appropriately, without placing undue emphasis on the score from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, Strain said.
“You know, it’s always flowing over, or we come to the threat of having to go back to the previous farm bill,” he said. “But the other thing is, when we pass it, we can’t pass it in such a way that we’re just trying to get a low CBO score.”
Other members of the state agriculture delegation expressed cautious optimism about the prospects for a farm law in 2023, noting that there would be consequences for US farmers if a new law is not passed in time.
“I’m really encouraged by what (US House Speaker) Kevin McCarthy said this week, that they will,” Pate said. “People have to understand the impact of that kind of thing. Just like a government shutdown, these things have consequences when they’re not done.”