Saturday, September 20, 2014

Farm Bill Free-for-all 

 As the reauthorization process of the farm bill resumes, seed industry leaders encourage stakeholders to stand shoulder to shoulder for ag.

The reauthorization of the farm bill, which expires this September, has veered far from its usual route. Last November, a farm bill proposal meeting its share of the deficit reduction package—$23 billion over 10 years—was submitted to the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction by Agriculture Committee leaders. No details of this bill were released at the time of its writing, and the normal legislative process of hearings, negotiations and amendments was bypassed with the bill’s inclusion in the committee’s deficit reduction package, which was to be put to a simple up or down vote by Congress last December. 

 Houston Washington, We Have a Problem”

However, with the failure of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, or “super committee,” to reach an agreement on $1.2 trillion in budget cuts, Leslie Cahill, vice president of government affairs for the American Seed Trade Association, expects a course correction of the farm bill’s trajectory back to a more traditional path. “The process will probably go forward this year, and there will be the usual series of field hearings and, hopefully, more opportunity for input.”

Transparency and debate are necessary when drafting the bill, says Cahill, because of the evolving nature of agriculture. “As we look for answers to bolster the economy, feed a growing population, and help maintain national security, while building and enhancing agricultural markets around the world, we have to be inclusive, to be helpful, and to do our due diligence. We have to have some very honest discussions on exactly what agriculture brings to the table—and that’s quite a bit,” she says.

The launch pad for the new draft proposal of the farm bill will be the near-deal draft submitted to the super committee last November, says Cahill. Senator Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, also confirms this draft as the jumping-off point. “These responsible recommendations provide a strong framework on which we can continue to build,” said Stabenow at the 2011 Farm Journal Forum in Washington, D.C., last December.

A typical timeline for the completion of a draft proposal by Memorial Day is also expected, says Cahill. However, many factors could send the farm bill and its budget veering off into unexplored territory once again. “We’re in unchartered waters as far as managing these budget numbers are concerned—they’re quite serious and they affect everybody,” explains Cahill. “With the election coming, it’s hard to say what the voters’ mandate is going to be, meaning, who’s coming back to Congress, what will be the priorities, and how will the housing market, world markets, and everything else, shake out.” 

 Stand Tall, Stand Proud, Stand Together

As the members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees return to drafting the latest farm bill proposal this January, Cahill is encouraging stakeholders to stand together and make their voices heard on Capitol Hill in 2012.

“There’s never been a more critical time in our history as far as agriculture is concerned. We really need to lock arms and stand together, because if we don’t, there could be a lot of harm and uncertainty ahead for us,” says Cahill.

She says a strong, collective voice is needed to speak to a Congress that has little familiarity with the agriculture industry at a time when competition for funds and scrutiny of the farm bill is at an all-time high, making this year’s reauthorization process much different from what it has been in the past.

To be heard on the Hill, Cahill suggests industry professionals keep in contact with their members of Congress, work with ASTA and other associations and groups, and listen to their customers.

To the seed industry, the farm bill is one of the most important pieces of legislation to pass through Congress every five years or so. Nearly every single farm bill title affects the seed industry in some way—whether it’s research, trade, aid, food policy, health and wellness, nutrition, conservation, energy, or production agriculture, says Cahill. “This is one of those times where the seed industry, as the very bottom part of the food chain, has a really important role to play.”

Although budget cuts are imminent and sacrifice is the collective American mantra in this economic climate, stakeholders must hold their ground for continued success in agriculture. “We’re in a budget situation that we’ve never seen in our lifetimes. However, we have to be mindful of the contribution that agriculture makes, and position it in such a way that we don’t do more harm—so we can maintain our high standards and level of productivity,” says Cahill.

John Latham, president of Latham Hi-Tech Seeds, wants to position farmers in such a way as to ensure their continued prosperity, and to protect them if and when bad times hit. He says it’s in the seed industry’s long-term interest to get involved and make its voice heard.

Latham’s concerned the upcoming farm bill could weaken the farm safety net, putting his customers and, ultimately, agriculture in jeopardy. “Right now, times are good and the prices are high, and farmers are doing well. My fear is a cutback as well as a pullback of prices could really leave people in bad shape,” he says. “There has to be some sort of safety net for when times are tough. The food supply is critical, not only for the United States, but for the whole world, and the United States leads that. We need to have some sort of safety net, and I hope that comes through in this farm bill.”

Latham’s heading to Capitol Hill this June, ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with other seed executives across the nation at ASTA’s 129th Annual Convention and Legislative Conference to discuss the safety net, among other important 

Shoulder to Shoulder

Latham’s heading to Capitol Hill this June, ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with other seed executives across the nation at ASTA’s 129th Annual Convention and Legislative Conference to discuss the safety net, among other important topics to the industry. “It’s a great opportunity if you’re in the seed business to come to Washington and to be a part of that lobbying effort with a bunch of fellow seedsmen on the Hill,” he says.

Cahill says the annual convention is a wonderful opportunity for people to come to Washington in an election year to talk about the value of seed, the importance of quality seed, and the importance of seed to trade, food security and national security in general. She’ll also address the importance of ag research to the farm bill, one of ASTA’s key priorities.

“We’ve been very strong supporters of the Agricultural Research Service at the USDA, and we maintain that position. It’s very difficult to win the battle on research because agriculture does not have the representation in Congress that other sectors of the economy do,” she says. “If we’re going to feed a growing world, we’ve got to do it with better seed, and better seed means more research, and continuing to bring these products into the pipeline each planting season so farmers can maintain that competitive advantage.”

Cahill is confident industry stakeholders will be heard by Congress in the upcoming debate on the farm bill. “Agriculture has always been known for its ability to stand together, to stand proud and to stand tall. There’s nothing more powerful than the voice of individual constituents. Nothing beats the ability of an individual voter to talk with members of Congress, policymakers, customers, associations and alliances that represent their customers,” she says.

However, there remains a lot of ground to cover this year to communicate seed’s vital role in agriculture, ground Cahill is happy to stomp. “Together we’ve accomplished a lot, but this is one of those times where we’ve got to do an even better job listening, learning, and articulating what the seed industry does, how well we do it, and what our role is in agriculture. It goes back to our motto, and that’s ‘First-the Seed,’” says Cahill.

Kari Belanger

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