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NAFTA, Farm Bill, Rural America Health Top Talking Points as Ag Committee Meets With Texas Farmers

Renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the new farm bill, and the economic health of rural America was on the minds of Texans who voiced their opinions and concerns to members of the House Agriculture Committee at a listening session in San Angelo on Monday.

Members of the ag community in Texas, the third-biggest production of agricultural goods by value in the U.S. behind only California and Iowa, ranging from soybean growers to sheep producers to dairy farmers, met with several members of the committee to express their concerns.

Jim Lovell, the chairman of the Texas Cattle Feeders Association (TCFA) and a cattle feeder for 32 years, addressed upcoming negotiations of NAFTA, saying any changes at the very least should have no negative effects on farmers.

“The TCFA wants to ensure that renegotiations of NAFTA do no harm to agriculture,” he said. “The TCFA supports the modernization of the agreement without eroding the market access or scientific standards that NAFTA has provided for U.S. beef.”

Among those involved in the listening sessions were Chairman K. Michael Conaway plus Reps. Collin Peterson, Jodey Arrington, David Rouzer, Roger Marshall, Rodney Davis, and Darren Soto. The group was at Angelo State University as part of its farm bill listening session called `Conversations in the Field.’

“The reason why we’re here today is to find out what you need, what policies we’re not familiar with … that you care about the most,” Davis said prior to the start of the listening session. “This is what helps us get a good farm bill. It helped last time, and it’ll help in 2018.”

Texas cattle producers would like to see sweeping changes in the farm bill including the elimination of several rules that Lovell said provide no benefits including country of origin labeling; the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Act (GIPSA); and the so-called packer ban that precludes packers from owning cattle.

“The inclusion of (COOL, GIPSA, and the packer ban) in previous farm bills has cost our industry millions of dollars with no underlying benefit,” he said.

It’s not just cattle ranchers who are worried about the outcome of NAFTA.

Sonya Koke, who owns Blue Jay Dairy in Erath County, Texas, with her husband, told the committee that NAFTA needs to be renegotiated, but she and others in the industry worry about losing access to Mexico and Canada.

Labor is also an issue for dairy producers, and she said she’d like to see a visa program that allows more farm workers to work legally in the U.S. Finding employees who are willing to work at a dairy is difficult because of the hours and nature of the business.

“Every day we try to find people who will work for us,” she said. “It’s a manual job. There are no machines that can come in and do this, we actually have to hook up the machines to the cow. We don’t have a harvest season, we have need 365 days a year, 24 hours a day for labor in this industry, so please look at visa programs.”

Crop and animal research is another area cattle ranchers would like to see addressed in the next farm bill, said Richard Thorpe, the president of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. Thorpe, who is also a physician, said a strong animal science program is needed to ensure that livestock remain healthy.

Foot-and-mouth disease is becoming more of a problem for cattle producers, and several of those who addressed the committee mentioned the issues they’ve had with the viral affliction. To keep importers from shunning U.S. beef, the department of agriculture needs to find a way to address the disease, Thorpe said.

“We have to maintain our strong export market,” he said. “NAFTA alone provides a $1 billion market for each Canada and Mexico; it’s huge. Japan is a $1.6 billion market and they announced they’re going to increase their (import) tariff from 39% to 50% on frozen beef. That’s going to hit our producers in the pocketbook because right now the export market is 13% of the animal, which is about $150 for the calf and $300 for the animal.”

He also discussed funding, or the lack thereof, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Environmental Quality Importance Program (EQIP) that rewards producers for implementing conservation programs on their ranches.

The program operates on a point system under which ranchers are given marks for adding a pond or rainwater catchment pools, for example. The more points they rack up, the better their chances of landing government contracts, he said.

The problem, Thorpe said, is that producers who don’t have the money to implement new practices or facilities then have less of a chance of landing government contracts. Finding a new way of grading ranchers for the EQIP program needs to be discussed, he said.

“We need to look at changes so more people can use it,” Thorpe said.

Wade Cowan, the chairman of the American Soybean Association, said now is a tough time for farmers. Low crop prices along with high input costs are making it difficult to make money. When producers don’t spend, everybody in rural America suffers.

“I’m an eighth-generation farmer, and it breaks my heart to tell you that I don’t think there’ll be a ninth,” he said. “Things are so tough.”

The Walmart in Brownfield, Texas, where Cowan grows soybeans, closed recently because it wasn’t profitable, he said. Young people are leaving town, said Cowan, who noted that he and his wife are the only two from their graduating class in the 1980s who are still in the ag industry.

Without a strong farm bill to give rural America a boost, towns will disappear as younger people flee to cities, he said.

“We’re facing that kind of devastation,” Cowan said. “I ask you as you look at the next farm bill to not treat it as a zero-sum game like the Congressional Budget Office. If you make a good farm bill, that helps all of agriculture and it will improve rural America, it will help improve our local communities, and it will be a net positive to rebuild America.”

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