Agricultural leaders in the House and Senate are negotiating quietly over elements for the new farm bill, already four months overdue, said the president of the largest U.S. farm group on Tuesday. “We feel they are putting pen to paper now,” said Zippy Duvall of the American Farm Bureau Federation, although the legislation must wait for a congressional resolution of the prolonged struggle over funding the government.
During an interview, Duvall called for the passage this spring of a modernized farm bill with commodity supports that reflect the increased cost of production. “It’s urgent we get it done,” he said. “We think it’s possible.”
The AFBF launched a postcard drive at its annual convention in Salt Lake City this week for speedy action on a “unified” farm bill that combines nutrition and farm safety nets. “We think they are married together for many reasons,” said Duvall.
The farm group is in regular contact with the so-called four corners of farm policy, the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate and House Agriculture committees. “They are talking to each other, trying to negotiate opportunities,” besides sharpening ideas individually, said Duvall. But federal funding is the paramount issue. The latest iteration of stopgap spending bills expires in early March, which could preclude action on a farm bill.
For months, farm bill discussions have deadlocked over demands from farm groups for higher reference prices; AFBF convention delegates renewed their support of an increase this week. An increase would make it easier to trigger crop subsidy payments and increase their size. Farm groups have said little in public about what increase they seek.
“It’s the cost of this [that] makes the discussion very difficult,” said Duvall. The top AFBF lobbyist said early this week that farm groups report to lawmakers about agricultural issues but defer to Congress on funding sources. A 10-percent increase in reference prices would cost $20 billion.
Senate Agriculture chairwoman Debbie Stabenow said last week that she is open to discussions of how to provide for all 22 commodities in the farm program “an increase under an ‘effective reference price.’” The 2018 farm bill included an escalator clause to increase reference prices by up to 15 percent — an effective reference price — if there is a multiyear run of high prices. Stabenow rejected in advance cuts in SNAP or climate funding, two areas eyed by conservatives for cuts to offset higher reference prices.
“This may be my last farm bill but it’s not my first,” said Stabenow, who will retire at the end of this year. “If we’re going to get a farm bill done this spring to keep farmers farming, it’s time to get serious.”
AFBF delegates adopted policy language in support of a freeze in wage levels for guest workers and to accept, if need be, caps on the number of guest workers who would be allowed to work year-round. At present, the H-2A visa program is limited to seasonal workers. Proposals to reform the guest worker program often include a limit on entry of workers for year-round work on dairy and livestock farms.