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Grassley Sees Farm Bill Pros and Cons
The 2018 farm bill is nearly official, having passed the House and Senate without the vote of one if its stalwart supporters.
After playing a key role in development of the bill, Iowa Senator Charles Grassley voted “no” in the final tally.
“I don’t want it to sound like I think [Senator Pat] Roberts isn’t a good Ag Committee Chair or isn’t fighting hard enough for farmers. It’s a good farm bill, and he and Senator Debbie Stabenow, the Ranking Democrat on the Ag Committee, did a good job. It’s a bi-partisan bill and passed with a bi-partisan vote,” Grassley offered in his weekly Capitol Hill Report. “But there was an issue that was left out, and if I had voted for the bill, I wouldn’t have been taken seriously again.”
For the past three Farm Bills, Grassley has advocated for caps on farm subsidies. In 2008, 2014, and again in 2018, he introduced amendments that would limit payments to $125,000 per year per person, $250,000 per couple, to be paid to one manager per farm – one that is actively engaged in the farming operation.
All three rounds the measure was cut from the final version.
“What we’re doing is subsidizing the bigger farmers to get bigger and making it harder for the young farmer to get started,” Grassley said, “when we should be protecting the small and mid-sized guy.”
The new bill eliminates the means test and makes extended family members eligible to collect farm subsidies, sometimes with multiple payees per farm, even if they do not directly work on the farm.
Grassley, a member of the Senate Ag Committee, and one of 13 Republican Senators to vote against the bill, was not invited to participate in the Conference Committee that hammered out the final bill. But last fall, he and other senators sent a letter to the committee stating: “Current law allows for most farmers who organize their farms as general partnerships or joint ventures to designate an unlimited number of farm managers for the purposes of collecting additional farm subsidies. The impact of this loophole is that large farms crowd out young and beginning farmers by increasing the price of land and cash rent. The fact that few young people are starting farms and staying in rural America is not surprising considering they have to compete with established farmers who have millions in equity and access to unlimited farm subsidies.”
According to the USDA, 77% of commodity subsidies, around $158 billion, goes to farms in the top 10% of sales. In addition, with more than half of the nation’s farmland rented, the subsidies often benefit the landowner rather than the farmer.
Grassley criticized the “dark rooms of conference committee meetings” and said Washington lobby groups and their members are the real winners. As of the September 30 lobbying disclosure deadline, more than 500 groups and companies hired lobbyists in 2017 and 2018 to advocate for them during farm bill negotiations, making it the fourth most-lobbied bill in the 115th Congress.
Overall, a good bill
The farm bill does offer much for farmers to celebrate. Lawmakers were able to protect crop insurance, an element most farmers claim is vital, and allows for smoother navigation of the PLC and ARC programs as well as expanded funding of the popular EQIP program. It also legalizes hemp production, allowing the USDA to regulate the plant and giving hemp farmers access to government programs. Hemp proponents claim the plant has potential for products ranging from clothing to biodegradable Legos.
There are changes to the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), including expanding the program by 3 million acres to 27 million acres nationwide.
“The bill corrects a couple of things from the 2014 Farm Bill,” Grassley explained. “In the old version, the government could pay more than cash renters could pay, and farmers could put whole farms in the program.”
Both of those measures made available pasture in short supply, particularly in the Midwest.
In the 2018 version, government payments are capped at 80% of the average cash rent for the area, and whole farms are no longer allowed.
“The point of the CRP program is to help the environment by targeting environmentally fragile land,” said Grassley. “When the whole farm is put in the program, that means the productive land is put in, too, not just the environmentally fragile land. That’s not the best use of the government’s money.”
The $867 billion farm bill passed the Senate 87-13 and the House 386-47, without the work requirements for SNAP the House originally wanted.
In other ag news, Grassley said he is supportive of President Trump’s action that allows the EPA to rewrite regulations governing the Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS). The 2015 version has been widely opposed by farm groups, who claim it went too far and cost farmers too much, and WOTUS definitions were unclear.
“This should be a more reasonable approach to managing how water runs off the farm,” said Grassley. According to the EPA, the new rules will affect approximately 18% of streams and 51% of wetlands nationwide.
The changes, while seen as a benefit for agriculture, also increase the window for coal industry dumping of contaminated water and coal ash, and diminished wetland protection headaches for development projects.
Experts estimate approximately one-third of Americans get their drinking water from the streams that would be deregulated under the new plan.