As the elder statesman from an agricultural state, U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts has worked on crafting seven farm bills. But it is with some trepidation that the work begins to draft new legislation amid daunting challenges confronting farmers in the era of President Donald Trump.
Roberts, chairman of the Senate agriculture committee, was in Kansas on Thursday for group's first field hearing in Manhattan for the 2018 Farm Bill. He and U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall, a fellow Republican who recently regained for the state a seat on the House agricultural committee, talked to constituents a day earlier about worries over the farm economy.
"We are ... trying to prevent what could be a farm crisis on our hands," Roberts told supporters in Wichita.
The 2014 Farm Bill was written when commodity prices were high. They are now at a 60-year low, farm credit is tightening and the trade outlook is uncertain, particularly due to some of the positions taken by the Trump Administration, Roberts said.
"I've been talking to some people that are at the White House dealing with trade and they are all wrapped up around ideology," he said, noting the administration has trade policy requirements that it wants to include in every deal, such as forcing other countries to adhere to U.S. environmental and labor laws.
"That is just not going to happen," Roberts said.
Another contentious issue is a proposed tax on imports, known as a "border adjustment," that has the support of House Republican leaders.
Mexico has said it wants to negotiate free trade agreements with Brazil and Argentina, a prospect that Roberts contends is causing "angst" throughout the agricultural industry in this country. He worries that U.S. farmers will lose market share, jobs and the ability to export their products with the proposal.
"It seems to me we need to be doggone careful about what lurks behind the banner of reform," the senator said.
Marshall warned that the country can't make farm policy in a vacuum — monetary, trade and other policies impact a producer's bottom line.
Kansas Agriculture Secretary Jackie McClaskey said farmers are looking for a stable and predictable safety net, as well as policy that gives them a reliable workforce to serve the agriculture economy.
"We are looking at an evolution of a farm bill — not a revolution," Marshall said.
At the Senate agricultural committee's field hearing this week, Kansas dairy producer Lynda Foster urged Congress to address agriculture's need for a stable and legal workforce.
Foster, whose operation milks 170 cows near Fort Scott in western Kansas, said her farm put in robotic milkers.
Kent Moore, a corn grower from Iuka, testified he was concerned about market development and market access.
"We can produce bumper crops," he said. "We need the ability to access trade."
Several producers who also spoke at the hearing urged lawmakers to protect the crop insurance program, noting that producers still need a safety net for crop failures.
"Remember those of us out in the country that put food on your table as you make these decisions," said Cameron Peirce, a sunflower grower from Hutchinson.