The American Farm Bureau and the National Farmers Union have been known historically for their disagreement on the right approach to farm policy.
But this year, the two groups are faced with writing a farm bill in a deeply divided Congress with strong pressure from environmental and budget-conscious forces at the same time that commodity prices are down sharply with dim hopes of a turnaround. So they are working to find common ground and unite the agriculture lobby.
"The current situation makes it important to look at what we can agree on," said Mary Kay Thatcher, senior director of congressional relations for the AFB.
She has been working with Zach Clark of the National Farmers Union to identify issues of concern to both organizations and to hammer out positions that both of them can support as efforts to craft a 2018 Farm Bill move forward.
Both Thatcher and Clark addressed members of the North American Agricultural Journalists at their annual spring meeting in Washington, D.C., on April, 24.
WORKING TOGETHER: Zach Clark with the National Farmers Union has been working with Mary Kay Thatcher at American Farm Bureau to find ways they can unite to push Congress to take action on key farm issues, including fixing the safety net for dairy and cotton.
There is, she said, widespread agreement that the existing safety net provisions are not working for cotton and dairy, and adjustments need to be made.
American Farm Bureau’s outlook
Thatcher said she thinks a farm bill will pass, but the 32 members of the Freedom Caucus in the House and the need for 60 votes in the Senate will both be hurdles that will make it difficult.
The Freedom Caucus, which was formed with only nine members, requires an invitation for new members to join. It has expanded to 32 House members and is likely to grow, Thatcher said. Its members are focused on the goal of moving the GOP to the right on a number of issues but especially on reducing government size and spending, and lowering taxes.
More than two-thirds of Freedom Caucus members won their district by more than 60% of the vote, she said, so they have little fear of retaliation from their home districts — and in fact, might feel more pressure from their constituents to hold fast to ideological positions than to pursue compromises.
"Republicans have 237 seats in the House, and it only takes 218 to pass a bill," she said. "But if the 32 Freedom Caucus members vote as a block and the Democrats vote as a block, you can't get there."
An additional issue, Thatcher said, is that one of the Freedom Caucus founders, Mick Mulvaney, is now head of the Office of Management and Budget and in a position to thwart administrative actions that newly confirmed Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue might seek to take.
There is also a strong likelihood that a push to split the farm bill to remove the nutrition title, something that came up in the 2012-2013 farm bill debate, will resurface this time around.
House chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, is a proponent of reform of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Thatcher said splitting out the nutrition title as a separate bill would be deeply detrimental to passage of a farm bill.
"We have 55% of the House members who have no rural interests at all in their districts," she said. "Why would they ever vote to maintain or improve farm programs if there was no offset for their urban constituents?"
On the plus side, she said, there is a lot of interest in farm country in the upcoming farm bill debate.
With farm income at historically high levels when the current bill was debated in 2012 and 2013, farmers were not active in the farm policy forum offered by the AFB. This year saw 10 times as much interest, and Thatcher said she thinks that will only expand as farm income continues remain flat or even to fall. Net farm income in 2016 was down 46% and is projected to drop another 8%.
In the end, she said, a farm bill will pass.
"What we need to do is write good legislation and then get past the flurry of amendments, some of them pretty ugly, that will have to be worked out," she said.
Especially troublesome amendments are expected to be a fight over reducing the adjusted gross income for commodity payments, and a push for reductions in the subsidy for crop insurance, which is currently 62%.
The National Farmers Union outlook
Zach Clark with the National Farmers Union told NAAJ members that NFU sees a need for both a short-term response to what is clearly a crisis in the dairy and cotton sectors and long-term policy that needs to be part of the 2018 Farm Bill.
"Clearly we need to address the problem that the safety net is not working for those sectors. Dairy relies heavily on exports, and we need to explore whether recent pricing decisions in Canada are unfair trade practice," he said.
He said the NFU believes that the Obama administration went too far in terms of regulations, but doesn't believe that the answer is a wholesale gutting of regulations.
"What we need is predictability," he said. "The yo-yo on regulations doesn't help anyone."
The NFU opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership and was happy with pulling out, he said. It is also OK with renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement. But the heated rhetoric on the trade topic has the organization concerned.
"We are worried because 45% of all our ag exports go to China, Mexico and Canada," he said. "A look at tweaking agreements is a good idea, but heated rhetoric is not."
Clark said NFU is worried about the decline in net farm income and a decline in loans granted to producers. The Farm Service Agency is out of money for providing loan guarantees at a time when demand s surging.
"We need to look at how farm policy can be shaped to help those banks and other farm credit providers have the flexibility to help farmers who have been hard hit by the economic downturn," he said.
Clark said he is also becoming concerned about the amount of time that is being spent on issues such as tax reform and health care and how that might cut into the time for collecting testimony and information needed to craft a good farm bill.
"We are also concerned as we see the Heritage Foundation staffing more and more people into important spots," he said.
Thatcher agreed on that point. She expressed concern that extreme fiscal conservatives in key spots could cause issues with efforts to do things like maintain the current farm bill baseline to offer "soft" fixes for cotton and dairy that are budget-neutral.
Clark said that oversupply is clearly the problem for dairy, but NFU does not see restraints on production as the answer, and it does see trade violations, especially the Canadian changes in pricing rules, as a problem.
"At the same time, they are trying to protect their producers who are facing some of the same problems that that we are facing," he said.
He said he sees fixing the immediate crisis in dairy and cotton supports as the single-biggest issue facing Perdue, who was sworn in as ag secretary on April 25.
"I think staffing up at USDA is going to be a big problem," Clark said. "We would like to see changes get made that will offer a better safety net to our dairy farmers, maybe a new crop insurance dairy risk program. But we, too, are concerned about the Heritage Foundation influence at the White House level and in the OMB."