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Ag Chairmen See Low Prices and Trade War Pressuring Farm Income

Persistently low commodity prices are pushing some farmers to the financial edge, said the chairmen of the Senate and House Agriculture committees on Thursday. “We are in a very tough spot,” said Senate Ag chairman Pat Roberts. The House Ag chairman, Collin Peterson, said “we are not in crisis yet” but continued sour conditions would sap the finances of a growing number of farmers.

By coincidence, both committees sped through organizational meetings within three hours of each other and their leaders set similar legislative goals. Peterson listed reauthorization of the Commodity Futures Trade Commission, which stalled in 2017 in a tug-of-war over agency funding and regulatory reach, and an extension of the Pesticide Registration Improvement Act, which authorizes the EPA to collect fees to maintain registration of pesticides. It was held up last year by a fight over teenage handlers of pesticides.

“Add in child nutrition and we’ll be fine,” said Roberts in supporting action on CFTC and PRIA. Congress has not touched child nutrition programs, which cost around $22 billion a year and are headlined by school lunch, since 2016. The Senate Agriculture Committee approved a package that included an expansion of summer-time meals. Hard-line House Republicans narrowly won Education Committee approval of a three-state test of converting school food programs into a block grant. Neither bill went to a floor vote.

Asked about reports of rising farm bankruptcy rates, Peterson pointed to the steep fall in farm income since its crest in 2013 and said, “We are not in crisis yet. It seems that people are nervous. This trade stuff has made people more nervous.” If commodity prices don’t improve and yields per acre falter, “we’ll have a lot of people in trouble” next year, he said.

Roberts referred somberly to a farmer suicide in Kansas. “To a family that loses somebody, that’s a full-blown crisis. Whether or not you make that determination countrywide, I’m not sure. But we are in a very tough spot. So I hope we don’t get more tariffs and tariff retaliation. I hope we can make some progress with China, and restore markets we had.”

The United States and China are nearing the end of a 90-day break for negotiations in their trade war. President Trump said on Thursday that he does not expect to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping before his March 1 deadline for increasing U.S. tariffs to 25% on $200 million of Chinese products. The rate is now 10%. Last week, Trump said he and Xi would settle the final details face-to-face to resolve the trade war.

“Not yet. Maybe,” Trump replied when reporters asked if he would meet Xi in the next month or so. Asked if there would be a meeting before the deadline, Trump said “No.”

A U.S. delegation is scheduled to resume negotiations next week in Beijing.

The organizational meeting of the House Agriculture Committee included approval of subcommittee slots for the two-year congressional session. Like the 2017-18 session, membership of the Biotechnology, Horticulture and Research subcommittee is much larger than membership on the General Farm Commodities and Risk Management subcommittee, 21 to 10. Last session, the split was 21-14.

“This is how much the world has changed,” said Peterson. When he arrived in Congress three decades ago, everybody wanted to serve on the panel in charge of field crops.

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