The current farm bill does not expire until the fall of 2018, but several members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees — wary of the almost three years it took to approve the last bill — are getting a jump start on the process. There's also a sense that farmers and ranchers need more certainty about government programs during a time when the farm economy is still struggling to regain its footing.
Last week, GOP lawmakers moved a package aimed at updating and reforming the U.S. tax code through the U.S. House of Representatives, 227 — 205, with no Democratic support. House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, says farmers and ranchers have a lot to gain if tax reform makes its way to President Trump's desk for signature, including eventual repeal of the estate tax, an expanded expensing allowance and lower tax rates. Tax reform "will help the economy, it will help our producers, and I think this is a great step in the right direction," he said.
Later this month, negotiators from the U.S., Mexico and Canada head to Mexico City to discuss the North American Free Trade Agreement. To say that major U.S. farm and ranch groups are nervous about the potential outcome during this fourth round — starting Nov. 17 — would be an understatement. At a time when many farm gate prices are already under pressure and international exports account for an average of 20 percent of farm revenues, many fear that losing this crucial trade agreement will deliver a death blow to an already fragile farm economy.
One of our favorite things to do this time of year is to drive across the country to visit farms and families across the nation's midsection. In a little over a week, my husband and I crossed over parts of Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois watching tractors and combines roll. It's usually a mixed bag of field conditions depending on how the weather treated farmers in each state. We saw fields that were too soggy to harvest with at least one tractor stuck in a field, drought-stressed corn and some soybean fields overtaken by weeds.
Over the last few decades, U.S. farmers have made great strides in conserving soil and enhancing water quality, but there's a growing concern that more needs to be done. But how can you accomplish more when the amount of federal and state dollars to assist in this effort may be at a standstill or likely to decline?
The second floor of the U.S. .Department of Agriculture's headquarters building, where the Secretary of Agriculture holds court, is still pretty quiet. It's been more than eight months since Donald Trump was sworn in as president, and his cabinet positions are all filled, including Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. But the next tier of positions — the deputy, the undersecretaries and the administrators that handle key policy and program decisions — are all vacant. That could start to change soon, although the process is moving at a snail's pace.
For the last two decades or so, I've spent a good chunk of my summer reading tax forms filed by some of the leading farm organizations and commodity groups. Why? It's a pain-staking exercise but helps board members and others better understand how to best compensate their chief executive officers who are often asked to go toe-to-toe with other CEOs on their behalf and manage multi-million dollar organizations.
Do you know what your net farm income was in 2016? On average, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 20 percent of your NFI was due to exports. So take your income minus 20 percent and see how you feel about losing export markets. And consider that the top export markets are reliably Mexico, Canada and China. Perhaps you will begin to understand why ag leaders are nervous about negotiations to overhaul the North American Free Trade Agreement as renegotiations begin.
Those of you who live and work in rural America already know the problems associated with poor connectivity. It's hard to do business or keep in touch with loved ones when your cell phone calls drop off and you can't connect to the internet. The Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai has been learning this first hand, and it's not just in the mid-section of our country where farms and towns are sometimes spread several miles apart.
A lot has changed since the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed in 1994. So shouldn't we look for ways to improve and update the deal between the United States, Canada and Mexico? President Donald Trump thinks so. After initially calling it a "disaster" on the campaign trail, he decided to renegotiate rather than withdraw from the trade pact completely. And now the process is moving forward, with official talks scheduled to begin Aug. 16 in Washington.