WASHINGTON – The federal farm bill is up for renewal this year at a time when farm incomes are dropping and food stamp demand remains high even while the economy improves, worrying some advocates who see Republicans in the White House and Congress looking widely for ways to cut spending.
"It's not going to be a revolutionary farm bill," said U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, who as ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee will play a central role in congressional negotiations. "We don't have the money."
The farm bill distributes about $100 billion a year to agricultural programs in the form of crop insurance, commodity subsidies, rural development and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. That program, more commonly known as food stamps, consumes about 80 percent of farm bill funding; the program's total recipients in Minnesota have grown by about 268 percent in the last decade, and failed to return to pre-recession levels.
Peterson spoke in an interview last week about his hopes for the spending package, and fears that ideological fights over food stamps could derail the bill this time around. The current farm law expires in September, and the House Agriculture Committee could take its first votes on a replacement as early as February.
Peterson conveyed worry about signals from the White House, particularly White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, a former Republican congressman.
"When he was in the House, he spent his entire time trying to get rid of the farm program, so he's not our friend, and he's doing everything he can to undermine the amount of money we have," Peterson said. "They're letting him run wild at this point."
On Monday, Trump spoke to thousands of farmers and ranchers at the American Farm Bureau Federation's convention in Nashville. He expressed hope for a good farm bill and concluded his speech by saying, "Farm country is God's country."
Several months ago, Peterson visited the Trump White House for the first time, as part of a bipartisan group of federal lawmakers. Trump mentioned the farm bill to Peterson: "I heard it's all welfare," Peterson said Trump told him. Last year, Trump called for double-digit cuts in both crop insurance and food stamps.
'Leave food stamps alone'
In recent months, Peterson, whose largely rural district covers major portions of western Minnesota, has traveled the country for community listening sessions on the next farm bill in New York, Florida, Texas, Illinois and Pennsylvania.
"Leave food stamps alone — we heard that every place," Peterson said. "Leave crop insurance alone — we heard that every place."
Still, Peterson said he supports at least a tightening of eligibility for food stamps. He thinks that states can abuse a waiver system that allows them to charge the federal government for giving food stamps to people whose incomes are 130 percent of the poverty line. Minnesota, for example, gives food stamps to people at 165 percent of the poverty line; North Dakota has set eligibility at 200 percent.
Much is at stake for farmers, too, especially as many struggle amid low commodity prices and a surplus of crops on the market. Net farm income has dropped 50 percent in the last four years, according to a website on the farm bill set up by the House Agriculture Committee. Many farmers are pushing to keep crop insurance programs strong. And dairy farmers in particular want a better margin protection program than what's featured in the current farm bill — they say the system isn't helping those in need.
"We've had an extended period now with low [commodity] prices … farmers' financial statements are starting to carry a lot of debt again, and that's troublesome," said Gary Wertish, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union.
Critics see crop insurance as a massive giveaway to corporate farming interests, and a coalition of interest groups from the left-leaning Environmental Working Group to the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute has raised familiar calls to scale back spending on the program. Last month, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a report offering recommendations on saving money in the $9 billion-a-year crop insurance program.
Limits on crop insurance?
The CBO maintains that the biggest way to cut costs is ending the harvest price option, which protects growers from losses at the price at harvest if it's larger than the price locked in when the insurance policy was sold early in the year. The CBO also calculated savings for the government generally paying a smaller percentage of premiums and requiring wealthier farmers to pay a bigger portion.
Ben Anderson, who works on farm policy reform for the Land Stewardship Project, flew to Washington in November to pass out large stacks of cards signed by Minnesotans that called for limits on federal crop insurance to the largest farms, an end to subsidies for "large-scale corporate-backed feedlots and dairies" and support for soil health, crop diversity and clean water.
"Family farms are a linchpin in our democracy, which is being threatened on all fronts," a resident of Breezy Point wrote on one card. "Please protect our heritage!"
One of Peterson's own priorities will be trying to raise the cap on acreage in the Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, from 24 million acres to 40. The government pays landowners to take less valuable acreage out of production, a move some say is especially needed given the oversupply of many farm crops amid low commodity prices.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has urged Peterson to increase the acreage. Jim Leach, the DNR's director of fish and wildlife, said the state has lost nearly all its tall prairie grass, even though the grass is important for pheasants, deer, monarch butterflies and other wildlife to survive.
And Peterson wants to limit the conservation payments to 80 percent of the land rental rate in a recipient's county, noting that a farmer in his home district was just made to leave land that he had rented to farm for decades after the owners started earning more money from the government subsidy.
Last month, Gov. Mark Dayton sent a letter to the Minnesota congressional delegation outlining a wish list for the federal farm bill. He wants updates to a margin protection program for dairy farmers, a proactive animal disease program to guard against another costly avian flu outbreak in the nation's No. 1 turkey producing state, and preservation of the crop insurance system.
"The next farm bill will have a profound impact on the health of Minnesota's farm and rural economies," Dayton wrote.