Farm bill hearing reflects 'tough decisions' ahead
By Larry Dreiling
Preservation of risk protection programs in light of federal budget reduction demands was the topic of a field hearing of the Senate Agriculture Committee, held Aug. 25 in Wichita, Kan. Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Ranking Minority Member Pat Roberts of Kansas appeared before a crowd of nearly 500 people to hear testimony from selected witnesses from state government, commodity groups and agricultural-related organizations and businesses. Both Stabenow and Roberts discussed the need for a strong farm safety net while reflecting current needs for budget austerity.
"As we prepare for the reauthorization of the farm bill it is important for us to begin by listening to these producers. Those with dirt under their fingernails provide the best perspective on the effectiveness of government regulations and programs," Roberts said, reminding the crowd that farm bills are national in scope and must protect producers from all states at a base level.
Stabenow's and Roberts' statements on the polarizing budget battle currently seen in Washington could be considered mirror images of each other.
"We know that our programs face budget pressure; and they should. The federal debt and deficit are out of control," Roberts said. "All USDA programs should be under consideration in a budget review, and the agriculture committees with the best experience and knowledge of those programs should lead in that effort."
Stabenow added: "Certainly, farmers here in Kansas know the importance of a strong farm safety net. You've been dealing with a record drought this year that is devastating crops and livestock production. Suffice it to say, if we ever needed a reminder about the risks farmers face, we got it this year. And that is the top principle I'm focused on as we get started with the new farm bill. But as we go into this process, we are facing a serious budget situation that forces us to look at this farm bill differently than we have in the past. We need to be evaluating everything the government does, measuring every program, and streamlining and consolidating programs."
Roberts again echoed Stabenow on streamlining programs, going so far as to tell the crowd about his sending the Barack Obama administration a list of proposed regulations he found objectionable.
"So often I hear from producers that the heavy hand of government intervention impacts them more than any program," Roberts said. "I'm hopeful that he (President Obama) will take a close look at them and other regulations and try to insert some Kansas common sense into the administration's actions."
Stabenow, while acknowledging that agricultural spending has already taken substantial and disproportionate cuts within the current budget, reviewed the facts that lay before lawmakers: The House of Representatives passed a bill earlier in the year that would have cut $48 billion from production agriculture's baseline. That bill did not have the votes in the Senate.
"Then, Sen. Roberts and I worked very hard and successfully to create a process where the agriculture committees can recommend the deficit reduction cuts and policies related to them," Stabenow said. "As a result, the deficit reduction agreement didn't make any immediate cuts to agriculture, but ag remains a target when the new 'super committee' finalizes their plan reduce the budget by $1.2 trillion or more...We in agriculture must make some tough decisions, or someone else will do it for us."
The witness list for the hearing offered a full range of representative groups involved in Kansas agriculture. The first witness was Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, who offered testimony on policy options related to the future of the Ogallala Aquifer.
"In order to sustain long-term economic growth, we must address the challenges of the aquifer," Brownback said. "Kansans understand the severity of this issue and are working together to develop state solutions to address the challenges of the declining Ogallala. However, in order to truly make an impact, a multi-state approach accompanied by appropriate federal policy would be useful."
Brownback sought support for the following federal programs: a new High Plains Groundwater Resource Conservation Program; a limited irrigated crop insurance program; flexibility in the Ag Water Enhancement Program; and funding research for low water usage crops such as sorghum.
Next was Kansas State University President Kirk Schultz, who called for research spending no less than $700 million over the course of the farm bill, far less than the $2 billion authorized under the current farm bill.
Other witnesses for the hearing included a producer panel with Steve Baccus, president of the Kansas Farm Bureau; Karl Esping, chairman of the Kansas Sunflower Commission; Kent Goyen, Kansas Cotton Association board member; Ken Grecian, president of the Kansas Livestock Association; Bob Henry, Kansas Soybean Association board member; Kenneth McCauley, past president of the National Corn Growers Association; David Schemm, president of the Kansas Association of Wheat Growers; and Greg Shelor, past president of the National Sorghum Producers.
A panel of conservation and agricultural business leaders followed, with Ron Bach, director, High Plains Farm Credit, Jetmore; Kathleen Brinker, general manager, Nemaha-Marshall Electric Cooperatives Association, Inc.; Ron Brown, president, Kansas Association of Conservation Districts; Barth Crouch, conservation policy director, Playa Lakes Joint Venture, Salina; Robert Tempel, general manager, WindRiver Grain LLC, Garden City; Jeff Whitham, CEO and chairman, Western State Bank, Garden City; and Karen Wilder, scientific and regulatory affairs director, Schwan Food Co., Salina.
The producer group, for the most part, centered their testimony about keeping a strong crop insurance program along with direct payments. The agricultural lenders also said crop insurance was an efficient government program. Regulation was the other topic at the hearing.
Following the hearing, Stabenow and Roberts commented that the witnesses all offered effective testimony on the issues they suspected were most important to all sectors of the state's agricultural economy.
Barry Flinchbaugh, Ph.D., K-State professor of agricultural economics, has advised members of Congress and administration officials through at least eight farm bills. He said the Wichita hearing was "the best hearing I've ever attended."
Flinchbaugh said, "The witnesses were on target about what is needed in the next farm bill. That means the need for an effective crop insurance program, targeted direct payments and proper regulatory reform. You can tell these two (Stabenow and Roberts) get along with each other and will be able to not only work together but will be excellent in working with the other members of the Senate to get this farm bill done the right way."
Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117, or by email at email@example.com.