A section-by-section analysis of Perdue’s farm bill principles
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on Wednesday released a set of farm bill principles that are mostly so broad and bland they are unlikely to bother anyone.
But a few subtleties in wording and some omissions indicate that the Trump administration differs with previous administrations and farm and nutrition groups and perhaps is uncertain about exactly what the farm bill does.
Perdue has said repeatedly that Congress will write the farm bill and USDA will only provide technical assistance, but the document also gives an idea of what provisions would garner President Donald Trump’s signature on the bill.
Here are analyses of each section of USDA’s “2018 Farm Bill and Legislative Principles.”
FARM PRODUCTION AND CONSERVATION
The first item in the document says that USDA will support legislation that will “provide a farm safety net that helps American farmers weather times of economic stress without distorting markets or increasing shallow loss payments.” That is an indication that the Trump administration will not favor more generous Price Loss Coverage or Agricultural Risk Coverage payments.
The document says twice that USDA wants to help young, beginning, veteran and underrepresented farmers. In the farm production section, it says USDA will support legislation to “encourage entry into farming through increased access to land and capital for young, beginning, veteran and underrepresented farmers.” In the management section, the document also says USDA wants to “grow and intensify program availability to increase opportunities for new, beginning, veteran, and underrepresented producers.”
Helping these groups of farmers or would-be farmers is very popular in agricultural circles these days, but providing them meaningful assistance is difficult to achieve. Access to land is a very local issue, with prices varying dramatically across the country, and it is hard to see how the federal government could intervene in access to land without disturbing sale and rental markets. It is also interesting that the document uses the term “underrepresented producers” rather than “underserved farmers,” a term used by the Obama administration. It presumably refers to minority and female farmers.
The inclusion of a statement on conservation along with farm production follows the administration’s decision to move the Natural Resources Conservation Service into the same mission area with production. The conservation principles include a mention of soil health, reflecting the greatest concern about soil quality since the 1930s, when NRCS was set up as the Soil Conservation Service.
TRADE AND FOREIGN AGRICULTURAL AFFAIRS
This section is similar to the priorities that Congress and other administrations have expressed in the past. A phrase saying that farm bill provisions should be “consistent with U.S. international trade laws and obligations” signals more respect for the World Trade Organization than Trump has shown.
The section also says that the administration wants to “improve U.S. market competitiveness by expanding investments, strengthening accountability of export promotion programs, and incentivizing stronger financial partnerships,” but it does not specifically say that the administration would support some farm groups’ demands for increased funding for the Market Access and the Foreign Market Development Program.
Another provision says that USDA wants to open foreign markets “by increasing USDA expertise in scientific and technical areas to more effectively monitor foreign practices that impede U.S agricultural exports and engage with foreign partners to address them.” USDA already has that authority, so the question is whether the administration wants Congress to provide more money and perhaps personnel for those activities.
FOOD AND CONSUMER SERVICES
This section signals that the administration shares conservative Republican concerns that some people are getting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits when they should not be, and that more SNAP beneficiaries need to work. The administration appears to wade into what will undoubtedly be the most contentious aspect of the farm bill debate. The section is also silent on the question of whether there should be restrictions on what SNAP beneficiaries can buy, and USDA’s recent rejection of Maine’s proposal to not allow purchases of sugary sodas and candy is an indication that the administration will favor state experiments on employment requirements but not on what beneficiaries can buy.
MARKETING AND REGULATORY PROGRAMS
This section says USDA wants to protect the food supply, but it does not mention the vaccine bank that the National Pork Producers Council has been promoting. The section also says that USDA wants to “protect the integrity of the organic certified seal,” but organic producers who are already angry that the administration is withdrawing the organic livestock proposal will be watching very carefully to see whether the administration will support more money for the organic inspections that are vital for consumer respect for the seal.
The document contains a section endorsing strong food safety rules and inspection, which is odd because the farm bill usually doesn’t address that issue. There is also a statement that USDA resources should continue to focus “on products and processes that pose the greatest public health risk.” Consumer groups may worry that means ignoring some food safety concerns.
RESEARCH, EDUCATION AND ECONOMICS
This section says that USDA wants to “empower public-private partnerships to leverage federal dollars, increase capacity, and investments in infrastructure for modern food and agricultural science.” That should mean support for continued funding for the Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research, the public-private effort set up under the 2014 farm bill.
But another sentence calling for “an impact evaluation approach, including the use of industry panels, to align research priorities to invest in high-priority innovation, technology, and education networks” may alarm pure researchers that industry may gain more power in determining what research priorities and grants are approved.
This section reflects the findings of the recent White House report on rural prosperity, but does not offer new details.
NATURAL RESOURCES AND ENVIRONMENT
This section discusses only forestry policy, reflecting the administration’s decision to move the Natural Resources Conservation Service out of that mission area. The document says USDA wants the farm bill to “reduce litigative risk and regulatory impediments to timely environmental review, sound harvesting, fire management and habitat protection to improve forest health while providing jobs and prosperity to rural communities.”
Whether the farm bill can address those issues is questionable. The farm bill usually deals only with private forestry issues, and most of the environmental regulation to which forestry companies object comes under the jurisdiction of other federal agencies and other congressional committees.
This section lists concerns that USDA has had through several administrations, but a request to “provide USDA full authority to responsibly manage properties and facilities under its jurisdiction” raises questions about whether USDA is asking for some new authority or relief from congressional requirements on issues such as closing Farm Service Agency county offices or research facilities that are protected by members of Congress.
The section also says that USDA should be able to use its “expertise” in managing farm labor, which is under the jurisdiction of the Labor Department. Some farm leaders have called for moving the H2A program that brings in foreign farm workers to USDA, but achieving that would be a heavy lift – and unlikely to be done through the farm bill.
–The Hagstrom Report
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