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Farm bill focus: Limited funds, many demands

The next farm bill has many unknowns and variables, but one thing is clear: Federal funding is limited, and not everyone is going to get everything they want.

"There's not enough money to do everything," said Joe Outlaw, co-director of the Agricultural and Food Policy Center, and professor of Agricultural Economics at Texas A&M University. "Constituents are up here (Capitol Hill) on every day of every week that want something, and nobody ever comes up and asks for less."

Outlaw was among the panelists during a Feb. 13 Farm Bill Forum in Washington, D.C. The event, organized by the Farm Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides nonpartisan policy and forums related to agriculture, was open to journalists and others online.

The following people rounded out the panel:

• Patrick Westhoff, director of the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri

• Craig Jagger, formerly chief economist of the House Agriculture Committee and principal analyst, Congressional Budget Office.

• Don Villwock, Indiana farmer and former president of the Indiana Farm Bureau.

The current U.S. farm bill, the centerpiece of the federal government's food and agricultural policies, was approved in 2014 and expires in September 2018. Farm group leaders are working on a new one and hope to have it approved before September. It's unclear whether that will happen, panelists said.

Focus on trade issues and potential attempts by the Trump administration to redo U.S. immigration and welfare policies could divert attention from work on the farm bill, Outlaw said.

Upcoming Congressional elections also are likely to hamper crafting a new farm bill, panelists said.

Jagger discussed the farm bill budgeting process. The budget comes from the Congressional Budget Office and is based on 10-year projections of the cost of government programs if current laws continue unchanged.

The process is more complicated and more constrained than some people might realize, he said.

For instance, spending less money for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (sometimes known as food stamps) would not free up funding for other farm programs, Jagger said.

Safety net, crop insurance

Westhoff noted the U.S. Department of Agriculture projects that U.S. farm profits will decline in 2018 and that farm income, adjusted for inflation, will be flat for the next few years.

Given that, "The farm bill as a safety net is needed now more than ever before," Outlaw said. "The only reason why we don't have a major catastrophe right now in different commodities is the fact that over the past few years we've had well-above-average yields across the country, (though) not in every state."

When yields inevitably decline, "These safety net programs are going to be vital to keep our food system in place and these farmers on the farm," he said.

Federal crop insurance — in which taxpayers pay part of the cost to keep it affordable to farmers — is particularly important to U.S. ag, Villwock said.

Ag bankers, farmers and others are "extremely motivated" for it to continue in the next farm bill, he said.

"Crop insurance is a safety net not only for farmers, but also for rural America," Villwock said.