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Searching for Farm Policy Details in Trump’s Words, Actions

Like his predecessors, President Trump ran for the White House on headlines and has to govern by the details. He swept rural America with pledges of tax and regulatory relief for farmers and stalwart support for ethanol. With few Trump appointees in place at USDA, farm groups find it harder than usual to discern the new administration’s plans for agriculture.

“Everyone’s trying to read the tea leaves,” says National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson. “There’s not much to read yet.” 

By some measures, there’s plenty of time to wait for specifics from the administration. The 2018 farm bill is not due for nearly 18 months, and the White House declared a temporary regulatory freeze when it took office so it can put its own stamp on the government. Trump’s nominee for agriculture secretary, former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue, got stuck at the end of the line for Senate confirmation, and he faced the prospect of starting work several weeks later than any USDA chief in an incoming administration in history.

“The administration is still getting its teams in place, top to bottom and side to side,” says Dale Moore, policy director for the Farm Bureau. “We’ll start hearing more where their thoughts lie.”

All the same, farm groups are uneasy over possible disruption of ag exports during trade negotiations and potential USDA budget cuts. “We’re scared to death, as is everyone in agriculture, about some of the rhetoric that is being used against some of our biggest customers,” says the NFU’s Johnson. 

In March, the White House proposed a 21% cut in discretionary spending at USDA, including an unspecified streamlining of county offices to reduce staffing and money for USDA’s data-gathering agencies. 

Some farm lobbyists, such as Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, note similarities between the “skinny” budget offered by Trump in mid-March and proposals from the conservative Heritage Foundation to downsize the government. 

The White House has longer-term plans to reorganize the government. In the near term, it is expected (in mid- to late May) to unveil its plans for mandatory programs, including crop supports, in the fiscal year that begins October 1. Heritage would eliminate ARC and PLC, and abolish revenue insurance. 

Heritage may look like the bogeyman of the farm program, but Moore doubts the think tank will call the shots on the budget. “I would hesitate to make that particular assumption,” he says. Trump told the Farm Bureau last fall, “I support a strong safety net for our nation’s farmers” and that he wanted “a good farm bill” delivered on time. In his speeches, House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway often refers to the president’s support for a good farm bill.

Still, the budget package that is assembled in coming months could be an early indicator of the farm bill that will be written next year, either by calling for cuts, holding steady on funding, or allotting more money to agriculture. 

Given the slump in farm income since 2013, farm groups hope for increased funding for the farm bill. They are giving priority in the bill to crop insurance and crop support programs, followed by conservation programs with an emphasis on working lands. 

“Historically, it’s not the administration who puts the farm bill together or approves the budget,” says Johnson. 

Moore, who worked at USDA during deliberations on the 2008 farm bill when the George W. Bush administration submitted legislative language to back up its proposals, made the same point. “Congress has a way of saying thank you to administration proposals, but we write the farm bill,” he says.

This article was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, an independent, nonprofit news organization producing investigative reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.


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