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Aggies advised to be active in farm bill debate

WASHINGTON, D.C. — America's two most prominent general interest farm membership organizations don't agree on everything. So Mary Kay Thatcher, senior director-congressional for the American Farm Bureau Federation, and Zach Clark, government relations representative for the National Farmers Union, understandably don't agree on everything, either.

But Thatcher and Clark — who spoke April 24 with North American Agricultural Journalists during the group's annual convention in Washington, D.C. — agree on this: U.S. farmers and ranchers need to get involved in the political process as Congress begins work on a new U.S. farm bill.

Many ag producers, seeing all the states that Donald Trump won in the presidential election, may be taking for granted that a favorable new farm bill will be approved, Thatcher said.

"They overlook the difficulties we face in Congress," she said. This will be the eighth farm bill on which she's worked.

The farm bill is the centerpiece of U.S. food and agricultural policies and is typically rewritten every five years or so. The current version, passed in 2014, expires in 2018. Congress has begun preliminary work on a new farm bill, but full-scale efforts aren't expected to start until next year.

Typically, elected officials from rural states are most likely to support farm-bill provisions supported by farmers and ranchers, while senators and congressmen from urban areas are most likely to oppose them.

Winning Congressional approval of a favorable 2017 farm bill will require bipartisan support that includes overwhelming backing from Republicans, who control Congress, as well as the votes of Democrats, who are in the minority, she said.

Encouragingly, 2016 Senate elections favored candidates who generally are supportive of ag interests, Thatcher said.

"Agriculture couldn't have done any better in the Senate," she said.

In the U.S. House, there was "not very much change at all" because of the 2016 Congressional elections, she said.

On the other hand, membership in the invitation-only Freedom Caucus, also known as the House Freedom Caucus, has grown, Thatcher noted.

Freedom Caucus members tend to be skeptical of federal spending, which could make them less willing to support some aspects of a new farm bill.

The 2014 farm bill provides for $489 billion in spending over a five-year period, with nutrition programs accounting for about 80 percent of that.

Some Americans want to separate spending on nutrition programs, such as food programs, with spending on payments to farmers in the next farm bill.

Thatcher said separation would be a huge mistake for ag, reducing support from legislators whose districts or states have limited agriculture. "If you want a (new) farm bill, you need to keep the two married," she said.

Clark said pressure to cut federal spending complicates passing a new farm program with provisions that farmers need.

The Trump administration has emphasized reducing regulation on agriculture and other economic sectors. Clark said his organization wants "a middle-of-the-road approach" on regulation.

Poor crop prices and declining farm profitability have hurt farmers' ability to borrow money and to repay existing loans, Clark said.

"We're very alarmed," he said, adding that his organization is looking at ways to help local banks and credit institutions.