WASHINGTON – State agriculture officials from across the country sought this month to remind a new crop of lawmakers in Congress of their states’ needs for a robust farm bill to address a host 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 provide a timely, fully funded farm bill to address a wide range of issues affecting agriculture, including technology, conservation and foreign trade.
Throughout its two-day conference, members of the coalition stressed the bipartisan history of the bill and the importance of educating a new Congress on titles that support American food systems amid changing economic and environmental landscapes.
The state officials urged Congress to include nutrition programs in the farm bill, as past versions have done. They also advocated for bolstering crop insurance and allocating more money to research, animal safety, and conservation programs.
“It’s just a responsibility we have to make sure that all of our producers, our economies, our communities of every size have a forward-looking and fully funded farm bill,” NASDA president Doug Miyamoto, the director of the Wyoming Department of Agriculture, said in an interview.
Miyamoto was appointed to his state post by Republican former Gov. Matt Mead in 2015.
“We’ve got to make sure that we do this correctly,” he added. “We can’t start splintering off programs and splintering off ideas in the farm bill, and then hoping that we’re going to be able to get a comprehensive farm bill that’s on time.”
Mike Naig, secretary of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and an elected Republican, said it’s important for lawmakers — especially those who weren’t in office when the 2018 bill was written — to remember that the measure is not just a farm bill, but a farm-and-food bill.
“There’s a lot of new members of Congress that have never had a chance to vote on a farm bill,” Naig said. “A lot of work has to be done to educate folks on that.”
Kate Greenberg, the commissioner of the Colorado Department of Agriculture who was appointed by Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, also advocated for considering nutrition and agricultural policy in the same bill to keep the “critical nexus point of production and consumers.”
She added members of Congress must put 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 the policy and the appropriations on the American landscape in agriculture,” she said.
The five-year farm bill does not appropriate funding, which Congress does annually in separate bills. But it does authorize dollar amounts for discretionary programs that set expectations for actual spending bills. Other programs authorize mandatory funding not subject to annual decisions by lawmakers.
Lloyd Knight, deputy director of the Idaho State Department of Agriculture, encouraged Congress to provide certainty to farmers across the country by finishing the farm bill before the current authorizations expire Sept. 30.
Securing new technology, foreign markets, and the safety net
Mike Strain, the Republican commissioner of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, advocated for increasing funding for research and development of technology, especially as demand continues to outpace supply for U.S. agricultural goods.
Louisiana 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 research provisions would also be key for Western specialty crop farmers who need to address worker shortages.
Farmers in the state have converted from vegetable crops to tree nuts because the labor was cheaper, he said. But that trend could lead to an unwanted imbalance in what food crops are available to consumers, he added.
“If we don’t start investing in technology that can do the harvesting of other produce crops, we’re going to get way 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.
U.S. Under Secretary of Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs Alexis Taylor said in a February 1 Senate hearing that for every dollar the U.S. invests in developing foreign markets, U.S. farmers see a $24 return in the value of their products.
“They think there’s a huge return on what travel we can do and the marketing program that they find through our organization,” Pate said. “So we just need to continue to take the farmer story to people.”
Naig added the new farm bill needs to modernize and reinforce the federal crop safety net.
“I just don’t want to see anything undermine the importance of the crop insurance program,” he said.
Building conservation and food safety programs
Naig said farmers had broad interest in market-based environmental incentives in the coming farm bill. Concepts like soil health and carbon sequestration have entered the mainstream of agribusiness, but farmers are still wary about their costs.
“What has to be acknowledged is that there’s costs associated with implementing some of these practices,” Naig said. “So if you want to see significant adoption, how do you help them achieve a return on that investment? If you do that well and do that correctly, you will get implementation at a scale that you couldn’t otherwise.”
Jordan Seger, deputy director of the Indiana State Department of Agriculture, said he hopes to see federal encouragement of public-private conservation partnerships. He touted Indiana’s work with the Nature Conservancy and Enterprise Rent-a-Car to regrow wetlands and forests in the state.
“With about one dollar, we can get about seven or more dollars from the federal government, put that all toward 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, Trade, and Consumer Protection by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, said Congress should use the farm bill to get a better handle on animal health, noting outbreaks of avian influenza that have plagued the country since 2015.
Congress could create a national warning network for emerging animal diseases, like avian flu and African swine fever, he said.
“Clearly, this is something that crosses state boundaries,” Romanski said. “We need to have systems in place to track, respond to and eradicate diseases when they show up.”
Setting terms for state and federal collaboration
The coalition members said Congress should offer clear guidance and resources so states can make choices that suit their constituents.
The federal government should avoid placing mandates on conservation practices, Seger said. Increased collaboration between USDA agencies would also reduce paperwork for states, he added.
Knight, of Idaho, added that Congress must ensure federal programs are fully staffed. Clear guidelines on implementation that are flexible enough to accommodate the diverse needs of farmers throughout the country would also be key, he said.
“It’s a big country with a lot of issues and a lot of resources,” Knight said.
Colorado’s Greenberg said the bill also presents an opportunity to reinforce climate-related policies.
“The thing about climate change is that we’re all impacted, and our farmers and ranchers are on the frontlines,” Greenberg said. “They’re the ones who are feeling and experiencing the changes in the environment, and they know it. So how do we address that, not just state-by-state, but as a nation?”
Timeline in question
Members of the group predicted Congress would finish either by its fall 2023 deadline or next year.
Strain said he believed negotiations would likely bleed into 2024.
Regardless of the timeline, the bill must be funded appropriately, without an overemphasis on the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office’s score, Strain said.
“You know, it always runs over, or we get to the threat of having to revert to the previous farm bill,” he said. “But the other thing is that when we pass it, we can’t pass it in such a manner as to just try to get a low CBO score.”
Others in the state agriculture delegation expressed cautious optimism over the prospects of a farm bill in 2023, noting that there would be consequences for U.S. farmers if a new bill is not passed on time.
“I’m really encouraged by what (U.S. House Speaker) Kevin McCarthy said this week, that they’re going to get it done,” Pate said. “People need to understand the impact of that kind of stuff. Just like a government shutdown, these things have consequences when they don’t get them done.”