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Ferd Hoefner

Different goals for ag, farm bill

PITTSBURGH — They agree on the importance of federally funded agricultural research. And they agree that writing and passing the 2018 farm bill will be challenging. But the areas of agreement can't mask some major differences in how three key players in U.S. agricultural policy view ag.

Craig Cox, Ferd Hoefner and Beverly Paul spoke Oct. 4 in Pittsburgh during the annual convention of the Society of Environmental Journalists. The event had a strong ag component, including presentations by the three ag policy experts on the 2018 farm bill, the centerpiece of the federal government's food and agricultural policy.

Cox is farm policy expert for the Environmental Working Group, a frequent critic of mainstream U.S. ag.

Hoefner is policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which promotes sustainable ag.

Paul is a lobbyist for the American Soybean Association, which represents U.S. soybean farmers.

Paul said that though details of her group's goals are complex, its fundamental priority is simple.

"We want to protect current farm bill spending," especially given current poor farm profitability, she said.

The farm bill's commodity, crop insurance and export promotion sections are especially important to soybean growers, she said.

But soybean producers also want more spending on public-sector ag research, and there seems to be growing support in Congress to do so, she said.

"I'm getting the sense that more and more members of Congress want to spent some money on this," Paul said.

As its name implies, Cox's organization focuses primarily on environmental considerations. So it wants the next farm bill to promote ag policies and practices that it says will benefit the environment and healthy lives.

Reaching that goal has become more possible because of growing concern about water, he said.

"The impact of agriculture on water is beginning to cross thresholds that are affecting people very directly," including problems with drinking water, beach closings and ruined vacations, Cox said.

"This is really changing the way the public is encountering the implications of how we farm," he said. "I feel a different kind of energy around agricultural and environmental issues than I've felt before."

Nitrates are getting most of the negative attention, but "nitrates are just the tip of the iceberg. There are a lot of other contaminants in water that are associated with water use in agriculture," Cox said.

Current farm policies and financial incentives are "insufficient to get on top of water quality," he said.

So, his organization thinks it's time for "some mandatory measures" requiring farmers and landowners to reduce pollution, Cox said.

Adding conservation compliance requirements in the farm bill is a way to achieve that, he said.

Hoefner said his group has made progress among agriculturalists.

For many years, "When we'd say the No. 1 priority is soil health, people would get a puzzled look on their face and move on to something else," he said. "I'm very happy to say that over the last five years, we find the rest of agriculture is saying, 'Yes, soil health is important.'"

Even so, there are "serious and persistent problems" in the intersection of agriculture and the environment, and the next farm bill needs to address that better, Hoefner said.

The Trump administration has been criticized by journalists and scientists for discouraging public-sector scientists from speaking out on climate change and some other high-profile issues.

Cox and Hoefner said that continues to be the case.

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