January 17, 2018

Farm Bill is Back With Challenges & Opportunities

By Dennis Nuxoll

Every few years Congress turns its attention to reauthorizing the Farm Bill, and the time to do that has come around again with the bill set to expire in October of 2018.

When farm bills roll around, the media is covered with stories about farmers getting production subsidies and fights about nutrition program funding. That seems very remote to producers of fruits and vegetables in the West because we use the Farm Bill in a very different way. Producers in our industry rely upon the Farm Bill to provide funding for research and development projects for next generation crop varieties, funding for pest and disease intervention, and conservation programs to help with endangered species. Some of the money earmarked for specialty crops is used to help promote exports into new markets, while another expenditure lowers crop insurance premiums to a reasonable level. Though our industry benefits from the Farm Bill differently than others, like all of agriculture, there is a lot at stake.

Unlike the last reauthorization, it is anticipated that this Farm Bill will face significant budgetary hurdles. With the recently enacted tax law that is likely to add trillions to the federal deficit, all federal government spending is under pressure. Adding to this pressure is the fact that there will be significant demands for funding because many agriculture sectors, including corn, cotton, soybeans and dairy, have experienced massive losses over the last few years. Fruit and vegetable producers asked for significant Farm Bill funding for the first time only about a dozen years ago so we are still seen as “new” to the party. So factoring in these issues, our industry’s first priority is focused on maintaining our funding and preventing competing sectors of agriculture from reducing our budget.

We also have to look out for those organizations on the right and the far left that would seek to destroy the Farm Bill. Organizations on the right, like the Heritage Foundation, have often called the Farm Bill programs nothing more than corporate welfare. They have teamed up with those on the left that would like to transform the Farm Bill into a vehicle to achieve extreme concepts of social and environmental justice.

Beyond basic defense, we are focused on making improvements to how the federal government spends money to better help our members. For example, we want to focus more research resources on the automation/mechanization of the specialty crop industry. While not all crops will need this research (potatoes and onions come to mind since they are already largely automated) most of the specialty crop industry needs to become more mechanized and rely less on an uncertain farm labor supply. Many efforts are already underway in the private sector, but resources the federal government could provide through the Farm Bill could act as an accelerant. As such, we are exploring ways to dedicate research dollars on this priority—a priority for USDA to stimulate research and product development in automation to save labor within the specialty crop space.

We also want to strengthen the existing pest and disease programs. We use those programs to detect and interdict pests and diseases before they take hold in a state. If pests and disease have arrived, either at the border or within a state, then these programs help to first contain, and then eradicate. Western Growers and other fruit and vegetable associations are also working to secure additional funds for the market access program that many producers use to promote their products in distant markets around the world. The employment and profit multiplier for that program is very high and we want to see more funds flow so American exports can grow. Finally, we are interested in using the Farm Bill to tackle pressing conservation problems facing our industry.

Whether securing funds to help prevent endangered species listings or money to better manage water use, the Farm Bill can serve as a tool. For too long, fruit and vegetable producers have not taken full advantage of those programs and we are striving to change that and make programs that are more accessible to our members.