MANHATTAN, Kan. (DTN) -- Visiting with agricultural producers and touring research sites in Kansas on April 28, Sen. John Boozman, ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, agreed that it's going to be complicated for Congress to pass a $1.5 trillion farm bill when Republican colleagues in the House just passed a debt bill meant to cut spending by $4.8 trillion.
Boozman, R-Ark., spent the day with Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., going from breakfast with agribusiness leaders in Kansas City, Missouri, to meeting with Kansas farmers and ranchers in Manhattan, Kansas, as well as touring wheat and foreign-animal disease research facilities at Kansas State University.
Like other principal leaders on the Senate and House Agriculture Committees, Boozman has been visiting several states with committee members from both parties to hear about some of the needs facing agriculture and rural America.
Marshall's staff invited DTN to follow the senators on their tour and meetings.
DEBT CEILING COMPLICATES FARM BILL
The GOP-led House vote last week tying the debt ceiling to $4.8 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years likely will tie up Congress and President Joe Biden until the country is on the brink of a crisis. That's going to gridlock the prospects for a farm bill that also could cost $1.5 trillion over 10 years -- and possibly more given that committees have asked congressional budget writers for more funds to address the needs.
Boozman agreed that the debt debate is both complicated and difficult right now, as the U.S. Senate has to weigh in on the spending, and the country has $31 trillion in debt.
"What we're trying to do, as we do the farm bill, is make sure we're being as efficient as we can," Boozman said. "But we have to make decisions, and I would argue that food security is national security."
Reflecting that politics makes strange bedfellows, Marshall pointed out he met April 27 with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to talk about funding community health centers, but how to do that without increasing the federal budget.
"My belief is there are places in the federal government where we're not as efficient as we could be," Marshall said. He added, "We're going to have to figure out and prioritize where we're going to spend those monies. I think the biggest challenge on a farm bill right now is funding it."
Marshall added that the rising inflation on food has driven up the costs of government programs tied to food. Curbing inflation and slowing down the rise in interest rates are both tied to those costs, he said.
The senators heard Kansas farmers and livestock producers repeat similar themes about increasing commodity reference prices, protecting crop insurance, investing in conservation and research, and the challenges they face with the current drought across Kansas. Roughly half of the state is in D4 (exceptional drought) condition, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
"The drought is the No. 1 issue in Kansas right now," Marshall said.
Joe Newland, president of the Kansas Farm Bureau, highlighted for the senators the struggles with the winter wheat crop as insurance adjusters are looking at fields. "Wheat is already being zeroed out for production," Newland said. "We know there will be less here in 2023."
Newland added that conservation programs need to address the declining water levels in aquifers and reservoirs. Better technology is needed both for irrigation purposes and dryland farming, he said.
Chris Tanner, a farmer in northwestern Kansas and vice president of the Kansas Association of Wheat Growers, reiterated that the drought is affecting all aspects of agriculture. Crop insurers are adjusting wheat in his area at 5 bushels to 1/2-a-bushel per acre (bpa). His typical yield is closer to 60 bpa. "So, this is the year that we're definitely going to cash in on crop insurance on wheat on my farm," Tanner said. "This will be the second time in my whole farming career that I've had to do that. So, the drought this year is real, it's devastating, and I thank you guys for doing everything that you can to keep the safety net whole and help us through these rough cycles that we're going through."
Tanner added he's liquidated about half of his cow herd, going from 140 head down to 70. "I've started letting go of the older ones that just won't make it through the season, but we've been trying to hold out for rain," Tanner said, adding he's trying to hold on to those that have calves in the spring. "I'm hoping to be able to graze some fallow and some wheat to get their babies raised, but if I can't raise enough feedstuffs for winter, I'll have to liquidate the rest."
While crop insurance remains the primary safety net for producers, prolonged drought also has caused the Actual Production History (APH) to decline during the past decade for a lot of farmers while premiums are higher.
Boozman also talked about the challenges of extreme weather and the pressure that puts on creating sound risk-management policies.
"You can argue about what causes this or that, but the reality is we are seeing significant climate changes," he said, pointing to how the Mississippi River has gone from shallow to flooding in the past six months.
The senators also heard about the need for quicker disaster relief payments, as USDA is continuing to work on how the Emergency Relief Program (ERP) will pay for 2022 losses. J.D. Hanna, vice president of the Kansas Corn Growers Association, said the complications surrounding ERP and other USDA programs is overwhelming long-time Farm Service Agency (FSA) staff such as the one in the office he uses.
"She is frustrated about how complex some of these programs have become," Hanna said.
The senators also toured the new National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) adjacent to Kansas State University and heard from scientists, veterinarians and livestock producers.
"The grand challenge doing veterinary research is the budget," said Jurgen Richt, a veterinary professor and director of the Center of Excellence for Emerging and Zoonotic Animal Diseases at K-State. Richt pointed to how the National Institute of Health funds vaccine research. "To protect U.S. agriculture, we need a similar funding system."
Michael Springer, a Kansas pork producer, added to Richt's comments, saying the biggest threat to the U.S. pork industry is African swine fever (ASF). The disease, which has been found in the Dominican Republic, would become an industry nightmare if it shows up in the U.S. Springer said one of the biggest issues would be finding a way to reduce the growing feral hog population in the country.
Richt told senators that ASF "is a very complex virus," but right now, testing a virus is costly. He said he and another researcher received $600,000 from USDA, which only translated into three tests on a possible vaccine.
"We are shooting in the dark," Richt said. "We don't know a lot of the basics about ASF."
On a more basic level, livestock producers are also struggling more to find access to veterinarians. Garrett Stewart, a Kansas veterinarian, told senators more veterinarians are choosing to go into practice for pets rather than livestock.
Brody Peak, owner of the Emporia Livestock Auction, said his sale barn is required to have a veterinarian on site during sale days, and that's becoming harder all the time.
"It's one of the biggest issues we face," he said. Peak added, the veterinarian practices in Emporia have been trying for 18 months to recruit another veterinarian to the area. "I don't know how you fix it, but it's a real problem."
Livestock auctions also would like to see USDA funding to help producers buy the radio-frequency ID tags they will need under USDA's animal disease traceability rule that is working its way through the system. The tags are more costly, $2-$3 apiece, and only a small percentage of producers deliver cattle to the sale barns with those tags, Peak said.
Jackie Klippenstein, senior vice president and chief government and industry relations officer for Dairy Farmers of America, also told senators as part of the Kansas City Agribusiness Council breakfast that changes are needed to the Dairy Margin Coverage (DMC) "to make it relevant" to producers.
"The dairy safety net used to be meaningful," Klippenstein said but added that DMC's value has declined over time. "It's based on 2011 production history. Farms have changed since then."
Klippenstein also put in a plug for conservation programs, especially the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), because the U.S. dairy industry faces more sustainability demands from European regulatory regimes. That's because a lot of U.S. raw milk is sold to companies that have European headquarters.
"Conservation funds are critically important to dairy farmers because we're in a different situation," she said.
The U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee will hear more from producers on May 2 and May 4 with hearings scheduled on commodity programs, risk management and access to credit.
For more information, visit www.agriculture.senate.gov.
Also see "Amid Talk of Budget Cuts, Farmers Propose Ways to Boost Commodity Programs" here: https://www.dtnpf.com/….
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN
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