Thursday, June 13, 2024

Don't rush wrong Farm Bill

Recently, I joined other National Farmers Union leaders in meetings with the House Ag and Senate Ag committees about each of their versions of the 2024 Farm Bill. Based on those discussions, a tight timeline, and the need for modifications to both versions, I’m not optimistic for the passage of a 2024 Farm Bill but foresee another extension.

The Senate version and the House version of the Farm Bill are strikingly different — and, in the current Congress, “compromise” is a dirty word. Nonetheless, Congress will not allow the Farm Bill to expire, because then we would revert to permanent law of the 1949 Farm Act.

Price supports included in the 1949 Farm Act would result in taxpayers paying producers higher prices for commodities than the current marketplace. This backstop has forced Congress to act in the past, and I think it will again.

Even though the House version was passed out of committee, most agree it will struggle to pass the full House, with some representatives arguing it was passed only to be used as a political football in the 2024 campaign.

The House version favors large corporate farms. It also redirects funding in the Inflation Reduction Act from voluntary conservation programs, to instead fund programs that benefit the largest farms at the expense of family farms.

Meanwhile, the Senate version leaves in place Inflation Reduction Act funding that fully funds voluntary conservation programs, like CSP, EQIP, ACEP and RCPP. Historically, these programs were woefully underfunded at levels with only enough funding to cover the cost of one of every four applications.

The Senate version establishes a Special Investigator with the powers of the DOJ to enforce the rules of the Packers and Stockyards Act (PSA) and address the anticompetitive practices of corporate monopolies. Including this in the farm bill would make Senator Tester’s proposed Special Investigator bill as well as the USDA’s “Chief Competition Officer” created by the Biden administration permanent.

The Senate version solidifies in law a USDA Cattle Contract Library, which is a good first step in restoring price transparency to the livestock market. Shedding daylight on the secret contracts between corporate feeders and corporate packers is essential for a competitive marketplace, but it still requires cash trade before slaughter to determine the basis in the contracts.

The Senate version further establishes standards for voluntary U.S. origin labeling claims for Food Safety Inspection Service products. Including this in the Farm Bill protects the current rules in future administrations by codifying President Biden’s rule that Product of USA can only be used on products born, raised and processed in the USA.

Unfortunately, the Senate version also includes the A Plus Act. This will weaken the Packers and Stockyards Act by allowing auction yard owners to own a packing plant of up to 2,000 head per day of cattle and/or 10,000 head of hogs per day. This is prohibited by the PSA – and should continue to be prohibited.

Allowing auction yards to operate large packing plants will aid in the consolidation of livestock auction yards into the hands of few and reduce competition at the expense of the smaller regional yards. Instead, full enforcement of the PSA and requiring cash trade just before slaughter would expand our current livestock auction yards.

There are roughly 30 days between now and the general election when both the House and Senate are in session. That’s not enough time for proper debate, compromise and the passage of a Farm Bill that strengthens family farms and ranches. Some are advocating to pass a Farm Bill now, but Farmers Union is advocating to pass the right Farm Bill.

Farmers Union believes the best way to predict the future is to create it. That is why we are working to help forge a Farm Bill that will create a strong future for family farmers and ranchers.

Walter Schweitzer serves as president of Montana Farmers Union, a grassroots organization dedicated to serving family farmers and ranchers through education, legislation and cooperation. He farms and ranches near Geyser.