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Farm Bill Waits as Leaders Look for More Money

The chairman of the House Agriculture Committee appealed for additional funding from Congress for cotton and dairy subsidies in the near term, a step that also would make more money available for those programs in the 2018 farm bill. The funding would resolve a major issue for farm-state lawmakers: How to make the cotton and dairy programs more attractive to producers when there is no additional money for the farm program.

Speaking at a crop insurance meeting in Arizona, Agriculture Committee chairman Michael Conaway said work on the commodity section of the new farm bill “is on hold until we see what we get on a must-pass bill,” reported DTN/Progressive Farmer. Funding for cotton and dairy was included in a House disaster bill in December, but it is stalled in the Senate. Conaway said he would like to see the cotton and dairy provisions attached to any bill that is sure to be signed by President Trump. Lawmakers are bargaining on a funding bill to avoid a government shutdown at the end of this week.

Sweetening the cotton and dairy programs could cost more than $1 billion a year at a time when commodity supports cost a bit more than $7 billion annually. Dairy farmers and cotton growers say the insurance-like supports created by the 2014 farm law are a flop, and both groups have complained of ruinously low prices. Provisions in the House disaster bill would make seed cotton — cotton with lint still attached to the seed — eligible for the same subsidies offered to grains and soybeans and would remove a $20 million limit on USDA support of livestock insurance policies.

The free-market think tank American Enterprise Institute evaluated two possible cotton subsidies, including the seed cotton idea, and said they could cost from $620 million to more than $1 billion a year. The dairy industry has suggested larger USDA underwriting of the so-called Margin Protection Program and a more generous formula for calculating payments to farmers.

National Crop Insurances Services, a trade group, applauded Conaway as a proponent of a strong taxpayer-supported crop insurance program. The cost of the program — at $8 billion a year, the largest federal farm support — has declined with the slump in commodity prices that began in 2014. So-called revenue policies are by far the most popular type of coverage.

The “unsung heroes” of the farm bill are the relatively small-budget programs that help beginning farmers, give a hand to farmers’ markets, and pay for research into fruits and vegetables and organic farming, said Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan in an essay in The Hill newspaper. “Congress must pass a farm bill on time and provide more funding for these critical programs,” he said, emphasizing that funding expires on September 30.

The acting administrator of the USDA’s Risk Management Agency was expected to announce at the Arizona meeting the creation of a “business center” with duties that include computer technology for the USDA’s crop subsidy, crop insurance, and land stewardship agencies, said The Hagstrom Report. As part of a reorganization, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue placed the agencies in the same operating wing and announced a website that eventually will allow farmers and landowners to handle USDA paperwork electronically. For years, the computer systems used by the farm agencies have been regarded as antiquated and uncoordinated with one another.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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