Legislators talk agriculture and economy at Kansas State Fair
By Jennifer M. Latzke
A cool day with a hint of rain in the air made for a sparse crowd at the Agriculture and Economic Forum at the Kansas State Fair Sept. 10. Still, for Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran (R-KS) and 1st District Congressman Tim Huelskamp (R-KS) it was a good day to be out and talking about rural policy in a state where agriculture is the leading economic driver.
"I would say the state of Kansas agriculture is strong, although we need some rain in a lot of places across the state of Kansas," said Gov. Sam Brownback as he introduced the panel. "We've got a strong set of agricultural producers who are watching closely what's taking place in Washington.
"We've got the best delegation in America to impact agriculture and to set the stage for us moving forward as an industry. Agriculture is helping to carry America today. Our exports are doing that and we'll continue to do that and to grow. Our technology is the best in the world and our farmers are the best in the world. We just have to get out of the way."
Regulations were on the three legislators' minds, specifically how they can affect the agricultural sector and economic growth.
"As Kansans we have to realize much of the rest of the country doesn't think like we do, so we have our work cut out for us," Moran said. "The economy is the topic and while the farm bill will be debated, in my view, the single greatest threat that family farmers face, that production agriculture faces, that livestock producers face here in our state is the onslaught of government regulations and the uncertainty of what the government is going to do next."
"We have a lot of work to do, our nation is in serious financial straits, our federal government is literally broke, and agriculture will be part of the discussion of how we balance the budget," Huelskamp said. "In Congress today, there are currently 12 active agricultural producers. That means there are 424 members of Congress who need educating about what happens out here in agriculture.
"The biggest threat to profitability in agriculture in my mind is the Environmental Protection Agency," Huelskamp added. He cited regulations regarding spilled milk, dust and other things that have been brought up in recent days.
Huelskamp also cited President Barack Obama's speech to Congress a few days prior, and how the president called for passage of free trade agreements to boost the economy--the same agreements, Huelskamp said, that have been sitting on his desk for months.
"We have consumers in South Korea waiting to buy our stuff and they can't until we pass these agreements," he said. "If we ask our farmers to do more with less, then we need to provide them opportunities to sell Kansas products."
Farm spending and safety nets
The trio answered questions from farm leaders in the audience. First up was Theresa Brandenburg, Russell, Kan., with the Kansas Soybean Association. She wanted to know about what a safety net for agriculture will look like in the next farm bill.
Roberts, who is the ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said after the recent farm bill hearing in Wichita, Kan., the message was clear. Farmers need a strong and workable crop insurance program.
"We do have obligations to reduce the deficit responsibly," Roberts said. "In this next farm bill we will endeavor to combine and streamline programs to make them more effective.
"We're taking a hard look at a safety net," he added. "It's frustrating for farmers to look at commodity prices and then have no crop. Crop insurance is the key."
Moran said that crop insurance support has been cut nearly $12 billion since the passage of the recent farm bill, and that affects rural America's ability to bring young farmers back to the farm and to borrow money from banks--especially in the High Plains of western Kansas where weather is so often an enemy and not a friend.
The three legislators agreed that budget cuts are inevitable, and each mentioned that agriculture is a soft target for urban and suburban congressional representatives--a target that has a greater effect on their constituents than they understand, Moran said.
"We have our work cut out for us in an urban and suburban Congress," Moran said. "It is an easy target, to cut agriculture under the belief that it doesn't matter to them or their constituents. But so small of a portion of ag spending is related to farm programs--74 percent in the current bill is for food security and nutrition programs.
"In the rules that created the super committee, it has been written that food security and nutrition programs are off the table," Moran said. He explained if the committee's budget cuts are not supported by Congress, then automatic sequestration take place, and agriculture could be the victim. Cuts to spending must be fair across the board, he said.
"If they cut agricultural spending, that means something important to us in Kansas, but they've already taken things off the table that are important to them," Moran said. "I'm co-chair of the Hunger Caucus. I care about whether or not people get fed in the U.S. and around the world. But, to target the narrowest, 12 percent of farm bill spending, you can't solve the budget problem on agriculture alone."
Ag research funding
Gary Milershaski, Lakin, Kan., vice president of the Kansas Association of Wheat Growers, asked about the future of earmarks for agricultural research projects--many of which are by nature long term and vital to improving American farm and ranch production.
Roberts responded by saying that he'd rather people stopped calling them "earmarks" but rather "congressionally directed funding."
"Who do you think can make a better decision as to where funding goes or what should receive continued funding--a member of Congress or some Schedule C appointee?" Roberts asked. He said ag research is the one thing that the Kansas delegation wants to protect, and give stability and predictability to for researchers if they can.
Moran reported that basic research funding was held to constant levels for the coming year, and that was good in today's environment.
"A problem is, though, that in the absence of designated funding by a member of Congress, those decisions will generally now be done in USDA and the focus of Secretary (Tom) Vilsack and his team is different than what we think should be priorities," Moran said. "Things like global warming and climate change. They want to take the dollars we put into basic crop science and research over a long period of time and put into what is now popular with less value to production agriculture.
"If we stop funding research, much of which has been ongoing for decades, you lose the value of that research," Moran said. "It's not something we can pull the rug out from under overnight. If you eliminate research funding, it means you've wasted resources we've spent over a long period of time."
Small town banking and regulations
Kent Moore, Iuka, Kan., and board member of the Kansas Corn Growers Association, asked about the Dodd-Frank proposal for banking regulations and its effect on the ag lending community. Moran, who is a member of the Senate Banking Committee, shared his concerns that the Dodd-Frank legislation contains provisions that are too onerous for small rural community banks to pay for and will actually do more harm than good.
"You have to have more loans and more deposits and be a big bank to spread the cost of the regulatory environment," Moran said. "We would be different, agriculture would be difference in the absence of the farm lenders we have today.
"Politically, the Wall Street crowd, who should be the ones under regulation, worked their way out, bought their way out of this legislation and what was left were regulations on small financial institutions across the country," he added. Moran said he's already spoken to a dozen small bankers in Kansas who will no longer make real estate loans to hometown customers because the cost of the regulations around those loans is too much to bear. He gave another example of a bank in Texas that is out of business because regulators said the banks' loan portfolio was too weighted to small business loans--90 percent--in its own town.
Steve Baccus, Minneapolis, Kan., and president of the Kansas Farm Bureau, followed up by asking how the trio of legislators plans to work with the "negative, partisan Congress" to address regulations that stymie the economy.
Roberts said he and others in the Senate are working on legislation that will reform the regulations. The Roberts Regulatory Reform Act would put regulations to a cost-benefit yardstick.
Moran said he's spent many months thinking about the dysfunctionality of Congress and how it's gotten to the point that members can no longer debate issues while finding common ground on the overarching issues that affect us all.
"The solution is to quit asking Washington, D.C., or D.C. to quit demanding that it intrude into every issue in the country," Moran said. "Our founders understood that there is something called individual responsibility and we believe in federalism that says states and local governments are better able to deal with state and local issues than far off D.C.
"Meantime, we should spend the next year or two passing no legislation that does anything other than repeal the things already on the books to give the private sector and agriculture the things it needs to succeed."
Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807, or firstname.lastname@example.org.