The Road to the Farm Bill
The estimated two-year process to rewrite the Farm Bill has started in earnest. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., held the first hearing in Manhattan, Kansas, Feb. 23. The three-hour hearing spanned a variety of programs under the expansive bill’s authority. This was considered a “listening session,” where members of Congress take input from the public about what they want to see in a new bill. The next field hearing will be in Michigan, hosted by Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., the committee ranking member. Once these traveling sessions are complete by late summer, the committees will begin the work of drafting, with the intention to complete their work by the current bill’s expiration by the end of September 2018.
The cost of the current bill and the related amount of budget authority that is available to the committees to write the new farm bill will be a major factor in defining policy options. Three years ago, Congress passed a bipartisan farm bill that made a significant contribution to deficit reduction. This was the first time a farm bill voluntarily reduced spending before Congress began considering the bill. Despite that great contribution, the committees get no credit for those past efforts and must start again based on the cost of the current programs. Once the overall budget amount is known, the level of ambition to increase or cut various programs will become much clearer.
Given the volatility of the process during the last Farm Bill rewrite, it is hard to predict whether the full Congress will deliver a new bill to the president before the current one expires. Certainly, the committee leadership on both sides wants to have their work completed well in advance of that expiration. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, recently told the USDA Ag Outlook Conference that “there’s no reason whatsoever that we won’t get it done.” Conaway also sent a letter from the committee to House Budget Chairman Diane Black stating that “the committee is deeply concerned that Congress strenuously avoid adding more uncertainty to already uncertain times through another prolonged farm bill debate or, worse, a failed reauthorization effort or the exacerbation of current hardships through either the extension of current law or the passage of a farm bill that is simply not up to the job.”
NPC anticipates that specialty crops will have an increasingly important seat at the table for this upcoming Farm Bill. Research, nutrition, pest and disease prevention and market access will all be high priorities for the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance (SCFBA) and the potato industry specifically. Since the creation of SCFBA, the specialty crop sector has become a much more intrinsic part of the Farm Bill. NPC is a leader in SCFBA, and the success of the coalition has spurred the creation of the Specialty Crop Block Grant program, the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, the Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops Program and a variety of other programs. In total, over $1 billion in Farm Bill funds are now directed to the specialty crop sector, where 15 years ago that sector was largely absent from the bill.