By RACHEL LANE
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — For more than two hours, people spoke directly to members of the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture in northern Florida, to tell the members what works in the current farm bill, what misses the mark and what needs to be changed.
The hearing June 24 was the first “Conversation in the Field” of a series of meetings to allow members of the agricultural community to offer input on the 2018 farm bill. Attendees represented Florida and Georgia. Topics ranged from peanut growing to cotton safety nets, research funding to the importance of youth programs to get the next generation interested in farmers.
Each person spoke for about two minutes, but occasionally the representatives would ask additional questions about how to fix the problems presented; about a dozen attended the meeting.
Representatives from other districts are expected to attend future meetings. At the end of the meeting, Rep. Michael Conaway (R-Texas), chairman of the committee, thanked attendees for their comments, adding that committee members are all likely to vote for a strong 2018 farm bill but the rest of Congress might not be as supportive.
With only 70 members of Congress representing rural America, he said the remaining representatives have stronger voting power and the farmers, ranchers and members of rural communities are going to have to tell their stories of how the farm bill benefits or could benefit them. The stories will need to be told over and over again until the members of Congress listen.
“I think you touched on almost every topic in the farm bill ... The (2018) farm Bill is a work in progress. The work we did this morning will fold into that,” Conaway said.
He added a strong farm bill should be important to every person who eats. The bill allows prices of food to remain low, and most consumers don’t even know it. “The top 20 percent of income-earners in this country spend more on food than the bottom 20 percent makes. That’s who I worry about, the folks at the bottom.”
A mom living paycheck to paycheck has to pay the bills. The only flexibility she might find in her budget regards how much she spends on food that month, and that is not something Conaway wants to see cut.
“Quite frankly, we’re going to have some hard choices to make. We’re going to have less resources than they had in (2014),” he said. “They’re going to have to set priorities and we’re going to have to make some hard choices.”
He said he plans to get the farm bill completed on time to take effect in September 2018. Putting off the difficult decisions with short-term extensions isn’t going to make the hard decisions any easier.
“Farmers’ net income is down 50 percent and I think that’s the backdrop we’re going to consider as we write the next farm bill,” said Rep. Neal Dunn (R-Fla.).
John Hoblick, president of the Florida Farm Bureau, said the state’s farmers produce many crops that are forgotten in the farm bill, from avocados to generational dairy. Renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement is important to Florida farmers because Mexico produce has been able to undercut Florida produce as a result of it.
He supports the farm bill, national policies that include production price and yield price safety nets, specialty crop grants, producer conservation programs, conservation disaster relief and longterm renewable benefits. Some of these programs have saved Florida farmers in recent years, he said – from disease control to researching citrus green, a bacteria that has been destroying citrus crops since 2005.
“It is critical that the next farm bill continues to work with all segments of agriculture in all regions of the country,” said Gerald Long, president of the Georgia Farm Bureau.
Recent Georgia weather, from one of the worst droughts in history to unexpectedly hot temperatures, have ruined yields from blueberries to peaches. Crop insurance allowed most of the farmers to continue working for another year.
Other programs discussed included the Livestock Feed Program, the need for a vaccine bank for foot-and-mouth disease, a request to include aquaculture as a specialty crop, completely funding nutrition assistance and immigration reform so farm workers can more easily work on dairies and in harvesting crops rather than letting them rot in fields. The importance of trade, both imports and exports, was discussed, as were USDA efforts like the Marketing Assistance Program that help to support those programs.
These programs and concerns were typically addressed by how they impact the Southeast, but other listening sessions will be scheduled across the country.
As attendees entered, they were given index cards to write their name and issue they wished to address. Each person that turned in an index card was given roughly two minutes to speak on the topic.
Upcoming meeting information will be available on the Agriculture Committee website at https://agriculture.house.gov as is the video from June 24, and invitations will be sent to farm organizations in future regions in hopes the information will be passed along to farmers.