Even though it feels like the previous farm bill just passed, you should know work is already underway to assemble ideas for policy or program changes for the next one. Most provisions of the Agricultural Act of 2014 expire on Oct. 1, 2018.
For now, the Congressional role consists of informal discussions between House and Senate Agriculture Committee staffers, representatives of farm and commodity groups and other groups with an interest in the farm bill process.
Commodity and related interest groups are also holding conversations with their members, trying to get a sense of how the programs from the 2014 farm bill are working—particularly any shortcomings that need to be addressed. Final decisions on proposals won’t be made until those organizations hold their annual meetings.
The first steps in the new farm bill process should occur early this year, with House and Senate Agriculture Committee hearings. The House Agriculture Committee is likely to begin as early as March or April, both because their Senate counterparts will be holding confirmation for President Trump’s USDA nominees and because their committee membership is larger (45 members as opposed to 21 on the Senate Agriculture Committee). These field hearings will focus on commodity and crop insurance programs.
Some problems have already surfaced for commodity programs:
- Upland cotton producers are dissatisfied with the STAX program established in the 2014 farm bill. Less than one-quarter of eligible acres enrolled in the STAX program in 2016. Cotton producers were unsuccessful in getting USDA to make cottonseed eligible for income support payments.
- Dairy producers are unhappy with the payments they received under their new margin protection program after recent declines in the price of milk and will be pushing for a more robust program.
- There is widespread concern about county yield estimates being used to establish payment levels under the ARC-county program. Some disparate payments were made in adjacent counties because USDA-National Agricultural Statistics Service data is not available for all counties. It is not clear if commodity groups will agree on what that fix should look like.
- The mechanism for shifting cotton program base to other crops established under the 2014 farm bill resulted in a significant jump in peanut acreage in the South. Planted area for peanuts increased nearly 20% from 2011 to 2013 and from 2014 to 2016. Low prices and commodity forfeitures resulted. The biggest increases were in Georgia, Texas and Alabama.
Other issues likely to be raised include increasing the acreage cap of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), eliminating restrictions on using credit to finance agricultural trade with Cuba and allowing urban farmers to become eligible for some USDA programs, such as loans, technical assistance and training. Some groups will also likely renew their efforts to impose some limitations on benefits received under the federal crop insurance program.
In the next few months, the fiscal year 2018 budget process will begin. If it includes reconciliation instructions, forcing the House and Senate Agriculture Committees to impose reductions in farm program spending, it would slow the farm bill process.
If no significant fights emerge over the nutrition title or how to implement mandated reductions in farm program spending, it is possible this next farm bill could be completed early in 2018, well ahead of schedule. The previous four farm bills have taken more than a year to complete, so history isn’t encouraging on this score.