Getting cotton back into Title 1 as a covered commodity will be the biggest change anticipated in the next farm bill, says Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee Mike Conaway, R-Texas.
Conaway, speaking at the opening session of the National Cotton Council annual meeting Saturday in Dallas, Texas, said, “We have to get cotton back in Title 1, either as cottonseed or as lint. STAX did not work well for producers.”
Conaway does not dismiss the possibility of having cottonseed covered in the current farm program as an “other oilseed,” a strategy attempted during the Obama Administration without success. Conaway credited former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack for a “one-time” program to offset ginning costs. “I disagreed with him on his position with cottonseed, but his lawyers said he couldn’t do it and ours said he could. You tend to believe the lawyers you are paying.”
With a new administration and a new Secretary of Agriculture who comes from a cotton state (Georgia’s former Governor Sonny Perdue), Conaway says cottonseed may get a new look.
“I am anxious to get (Secretary of Agriculture designee) Sonny Perdue confirmed,” he said. “He has a lot of paperwork to fill out since has a ton of business interests, and an FBI background check to go through. But he should be confirmed quickly. I don’t expect his confirmation to be particularly contentious.”
Conaway added that President Trump has expressed support for agriculture as “the backbone of America. He also says the United States deserves a good farm bill and one that’s completed on time.”
The process is beginning, he said. “We will not have field hearings; they are too expensive. But we will have listening sessions, which will be less formal. We want to hear from farmers, and how the farm bill affects the way they do business.”
Conaway said he expects some efforts to split nutrition and commodity titles as the farm bill debates begin. “If it’s easier to pass both bills by keeping them together, we will,” he said. “If it is easier to pass both bills by splitting them, we will do that. What I will not allow is to split the bills so that (detractors) can defeat both.”
He expects to see mostly fine-tuning of current legislation, with the exception of cotton, some dairy adjustments and the Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) program, where “some county payments are out of line.”
He added that a hearing next week on the state of the rural economy will address the precipitous drop in farm income, a 46 percent decline, “the worst in decades. The Ag committee will also weigh in on your behalf every chance we get. This committee backs U.S. agriculture.”
Conaway said the nutrition program would be an important part of the coming debate that will include findings from 16 hearings on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), “what works and what doesn’t work.”
He adds that the last opportunity to reform SNAP “snuck up on us and was driven by money. This time around it will be driven by policy, particularly considering the potential to get people on the program and then back off. We want to do the policy first and then consider the cost. We have to establish what we need to do first.”
He described a situation in which the working poor have opportunities to advance but by taking the initiative they lose more benefits than they gain in income. “People will operate in their own best interests,” he said. “Work should be the key. We will always have people in need of constant help—the disabled, elderly, the mentally ill. We have to get to the root causes of hunger.”
He says the people working and struggling to feed their families are the most vulnerable. A single mother who has a financial setback, he said, can’t adjust the rent or the car payment. “She has to cut the food budget.”
Conaway expects to see regulations rolled back, especially when a new EPA director takes over. He says tax reform proposals are in the works but do not have enough “specificity” for meaningful debate.
He mentioned repeal and replace of Obamacare only briefly, noting that efforts were ongoing.
He also turned to trade issues and potential snags with the new administration. “Trade is a big deal with agriculture,” he said. “We sell it or smell it, and we want to sell it. TPP was a good deal for agriculture except for rice and tobacco.”
He noted that President Trump’s proposal to work on bilateral trade deals might have merit but needs to go forward.
He also said a trade imbalance consists of two factors—imports and exports. “Exports mean a lot to agriculture and we have to begin considering both factors.”
In a press conference following the general session, Conaway said he expects some of President Trump’s campaign rhetoric regarding trade, especially with China and with tariffs on Mexican imports, will be tempered and that advisors will provide sound counsel on best courses of action. “Tariffs just mean higher prices for our consumers,” Conaway said.
Lamesa, Texas, cotton farmer Shawn Holladay asked Conaway how budget reconciliation might affect funding for agriculture programs. “If we get cotton in the program, are we still looking at cuts?” Holladay asked.
Conaway said the atmosphere prevalent during 2014 farm bill discussions included record production and record prices and the feeling of many was that prices would not retreat to previous levels. “Today, the need for a safety net is apparent,” he said. Crop prices are low. He also noted that the 2014 bill has resulted in lower expenditures than expected, despite the significant loss of farm income in 2016.
Conway, in concluding remarks, encouraged farmers to engage consumers, educate them to the value of farm programs in providing “the most abundant, safest and most affordable food in the developed world.
“Encourage consumers to talk to their legislators. Consumers are the biggest beneficiaries (of agriculture programs). They need to be at the table and involved in legislation.”