WASHINGTON, D.C.-Republican agriculture leaders don't directly criticize the Trump administration trade deals, but everybody-regardless of party wants them resolved soon.

Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., was one of several congressional ag leaders who spoke recently to the North American Agricultural Journalists annual meeting in Washington, said agriculture policy has far less partisan rancor. Several ag leaders in the Senate and House covered thorny trade issues, and a variety of topics including the 2018 farm bill, which is now being implemented.

Colleagues also took the opportunity to praise Roberts, and mug for photos after Roberts recently announced he'll retire from Congress in 2020. Roberts is in his fourth term and 22 years in the Senate and 16 years before that in the House. At retirement, Roberts will be the longest serving Kansas congressional member in the state's history and was re-elected in 24 straight races.

Roberts praised the "bicameral, bipartisan effort" to get out the farm bill on time, and embraced both Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the House Ag Committee chairman, and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., former chairwoman of the committee. "We knew we had to get this job done and we needed to get it done on time," he said.

Roberts doesn't directly challenge Trump on tariffs wars with the Chinese and other trading partners. He said the president's use of Section 232 authority, to keep tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum imports on grounds they "threaten to impair national security," is causing a backlash that is hurting farmers.

He said there needs to be swift approval of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement. "My concern is that agriculture is used as a pawn, really, and then we've had to come up with mitigation payments and everything else," Roberts said. "I've never thought tariffs represent the best answer to come with, but if the administration feels that's a national security effort to date, that's the way it's going to be."

Ranking Democrat Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., appeared briefly at the meeting to say she'll "hate to see" Roberts leave in two years and is "trying to talk him out of doing that."

Stabenow said she expected ongoing cooperation in passing the Child Nutrition reauthorization, as well as support for the Women, Infants and Children food programs, summer programs and after-school programs.

Start up a dairy

Peterson said tariff wars with China are "a big mistake and is going to come back and haunt us," Peterson said. Steel tariffs will not revive the U.S. steel industry. "When we gave those jobs away to China, agriculture benefitted," he said.

Peterson also focused on dairy, and said farmers who think they'll "give up the ghost" because of poor prices should give the new program a chance.

"If you want to dairy farm, this is the best time I've seen in my career to get into dairy farming," Peterson said. "Cows are cheap. There's facilities sitting empty. You can rent a facility. You're never going to have a time like this to get into dairy and have a five-year guarantee on your gross revenue."

Peterson says he's also been trying to help Southerners, Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., and Al Wilson, R-S.C., who need a $3 billion relief package for damage to pecans, peaches and other crops that typically "don't get into crop insurance that were damaged at a tough time in the production cycle."

Peterson says Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota are suffering from spring flooding and storms, but much of the damage is already covered in farm bill provisions, including the Livestock Indemnity Program, Livestock Forage Program, and Emergency Conservation Program, which helps repair damage to farmland caused by natural disasters; and the Emergency Watershed Program, which allows communities to address infrastructure losses in natural disasters.

Needs, wants

The main thing that isn't covered in the Nebraska/Iowa flooding losses is the stored grain, Peterson said. "And we have more grain being stored now than we've ever had because of low prices and because of these tariffs," he said. He wouldn't rule out some kind of one-time relief package for stored grain loss, but it is also true that farmers "could have bought insurance" to cover storage losses. "Apparently it's kind of expensive, but it was available."

Some are advocating for $3 billion in Midwest flood relief, Peterson says. Instead, there should be perhaps $200 million in an Emergency Conservation Program and another $200 million in the Emergency Watershed Program "to get us through this."

Peterson said he sympathizes with flood losses, but noted that after the 2009 floods in the Red River Valley, he worked with Dave White, chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, to provide federal funding to build ring dikes around farmsteads so they don't flood again.

Ranking Republican Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said he's focused on implementing the 2018 Farm Bill and ensuring that trade deals are done because of the impact that not getting them done is having on rural America. He said a revision of the 25-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement is the "right thing to do." Conaway said he'd prefer a NAFTA replacement is passed this summer and said he is working to educate House Republicans and Democrats to support it. He also urged House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Ca., needs to "keep her thumb off the scale and let the system work."

An accountant like Peterson, Conaway served as chairman during the 2018 Farm Bill debate.

He said he thinks political support remains strong for the Trump administration in rural America and among farmers in particular, despite not being able to sell their goods in China.

A 369-vote support for the farm bill in the House and 87 members in the Senate "should send really strong messages ... that somehow the urban and suburban members figured it out: that we need good farm and agriculture policy to make this country thrive."

Rep. Collin Peterson tells the North American Agricultural Journalists that he is busy overseeing enactment of the farm bill.
Rep. Collin Peterson tells the North American Agricultural Journalists that he is busy overseeing enactment of the farm bill.
That said, there are "real things happening to real people" that indicate the need to get the deals done. He acknowledged that the political support could erode if economic conditions last too long. "Time is of the essence," he said, adding, "Plan B is to get Plan A working."

Conaway said his district has numerous dairies who "need labor every single day" and row crop producers, dominated by cotton, have squeezed most of the labor out of the system. Cotton gin operators need seasonal help.

He said perhaps it is time to consider a program analogous to Bracero Program from the 1940s to 1964, that allowed workers to come in for temporary or "guest" work.

"The needs for production agriculture are clear," Conaway said. "The lack of appetite for Americans to take those jobs is clear. I think it would be in all of our best interests to come to grips with the folks who are in this country illegally right now that are operating on farms and dairies, as well as putting in place a long-term cycle, so that those workers could be replaced."