Ag and the Next Congress

Top Republican on Senate Agriculture Committee Points to Opportunities Ahead

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
Connect with Chris:
Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., would be in line to become either the chairman or ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, depending on the outcome of the Georgia Senate runoff elections on Jan. 5. (DTN photo by Nick Scalise)

OMAHA (DTN) -- Arkansas Sen. John Boozman is looking forward to the opportunity to take the lead for Republicans on the Senate Agriculture Committee in the next Congress.

With Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., retiring from Congress, Boozman is in line to become either the chairman or ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, depending on the outcome of the Georgia Senate runoff elections on Jan. 5.

At the moment, Boozman and other senators are waiting to see how congressional leaders and the White House negotiate a possible coronavirus aid package. At least some lawmakers have coalesced around a $908 billion package that is viewed as a starting point for final negotiations. That package includes $26 billion for nutrition and agriculture.

"I hope that, you know, in the next day or two, we can come up with a good compromise that helps," Boozman told DTN in a phone interview. "Certainly, our schools or businesses, particularly small businesses, making sure that our health care providers have all of the resources that they need to fight the virus that's going on as we speak. But also to make sure that, as far as vaccination delivery, all of those kind of things are adequately funded. And I feel sure that they will be, but it's something that we need to come to an agreement."

Looking at agriculture and farm income, Boozman noted farmers appreciate the aid they have received over the past couple of years, especially in 2020 with government payments looking to account for just under 40% overall net farm income. But Boozman said such high payments cannot last.

"That's good in the sense of getting them by, but that's not sustainable long term," Boozman said. "I understand that, and the Agriculture Committee understands it. And our farm community understands it."

As a result, Boozman said senators are focused on ensuring China meets its Phase One Agreement obligations to buy more agricultural products. Lawmakers expect China will uphold its end of the agreement even after President Donald Trump leaves office in January.

"We're looking forward to significant purchases next year," Boozman said.

Boozman put a lot of emphasis on continued trade talks with the United Kingdom and European Union that would have to come through negotiations with the incoming Biden administration. More trade agreements are needed, Boozman added, because U.S. farmers are driven to increase production.

"Our farmers just do a tremendous job of producing things, and we've got to work hard to sell those products overseas," he said.

Without specifically mentioning climate change, Boozman acknowledged Congress and the Biden administration will be paying more attention to cleaner air, cleaner water and protecting soil in the process. That's going to demand more research, Boozman said, to ensure farmers can benefit financially as more emphasis is put on conservation measures.

"We want to make sure that that is focused in the right way," he said. "And so, again, I very much embrace the fact that we need to do all that we can. The other thing is making sure that farmers get the credit that they deserve for being right in the forefront of reducing our CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions. They have done a good job of being good stewards of the earth, and I want to make sure they are credited for the great work that they're doing."

Boozman said he thinks several hearings are needed on climate solutions and the several proposals in the mix regarding food and agriculture such as the Growing Climate Solutions Act introduced by Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind.

"The other thing is that, when we talk about these programs, you talk about them being voluntary," Boozman said. "We don't want to get ourselves in a situation where, if you don't volunteer, that you're penalized by somebody labeling you as not doing adequately regarding our science or being good stewards of the environment. So, there's lots of moving parts, and what we don't want these unintended consequences."

Another area Congress will have to tackle is reauthorizing the Child Nutrition Act. That's increasingly become a pendulum between improving nutrition standards for school lunches and breakfasts compared to increasing calls for local flexibility with those standards. Boozman said there are rules in the child nutrition programs that go back to the 1960s and need to be updated. The pandemic has forced a lot of changes already in school food programs, leading to waivers across the country, Boozman pointed out.

"So, we want to provide the people that provide the nutritious meals for young people in so many different ways," he said. "I'd like to see them be given a lot of flexibility. They're asking for this. And we've really seen what a difference it makes."

HEARING ON AG RESEARCH, FOOD SECURITY

In what is likely one of his last acts before his retirement, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Roberts presided over a hearing Wednesday on agricultural research and food security.

During the hearing, many committee members -- as well as the witnesses -- praised Roberts' tenure on the House and Senate agriculture committees. Stabenow presented Roberts with a set of photos and a gavel.

"While we will deeply miss your leadership, wit and determination on the dais, you will always be watching over us through your newly unveiled portrait in our committee hearing room," Stabenow said. "From showing you around Michigan to marking up our bipartisan farm bill, it's been an honor to be your partner on this committee and your friend. Looking back on all we have accomplished together, I know your legacy will live on through the words you've written into law and the relationships you've built to carry on your work. In recognition of all your dedication and hard work, the committee presents you with the chairman's gavel."

In his opening remarks, Roberts noted that, in fiscal year 1981, "When I began my service in the House, $1.4 billion in public funding was provided for U.S. agriculture research. By 2015, that annual investment more than tripled to more than $4.5 billion. Even more impressive, private sector investment in food and agriculture research rose over 660% over that same period -- from $1.6 billion to more than $12 billion per year."

Roberts added, "There is still a great deal to do. We must take a fresh look at what agricultural security means in terms of the defense of the agriculture sector and our food supply."

Boozman emphasized more investment in agricultural research to give farmers tools to lower their input costs.

"You can make more money by producing more product, but you also can make money by reducing the costs that it takes -- your input costs," Boozman said.

Technology now can help farmers better understand their soil moisture content and target fertilizer applications to help make farmers more efficient and still increasing production, Boozman said.

Another opportunity emphasized in Wednesday's hearing is the importance of broadband expansion, especially in rural and other underserved areas. COVID-19 has raised the level of that internet infrastructure need, especially to improve areas such as telemedicine. Better broadband access is becoming more important for farmers as well, Boozman noted.

"So much of the agricultural technology depends on broadband," he said. "And then, too, when you're talking about agriculture, when you're talking about farmers, (you will) be talking about rural America. And so, in order for it to flourish, you simply have to be wired."

Congress has already invested heavily in rural broadband, but Boozman said the commitment must continue to address areas such as telemedicine and education.

"And then even the ability to live in rural America and rural communities, and then work anyplace in the world," he said, "So these are all good things that we're going be focusing on."

Dan Glickman, a former U.S. agriculture secretary and House member from Kansas, highlighted in his testimony the creation of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), which was authorized by Congress in 2014 with the specific "parentage" of Roberts and Stabenow as an "important out-of-the box public-private sector model to enhance food and agriculture research, very much like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)." He also said that "the Feed the Future initiative, coupled with sustained U.S. financial assistance to the World Food Programme, has continued to be transformational in feeding a hungry world during these turbulent times."

Looking at research challenges, Glickman said agriculture, food and health are too often viewed separately with no major discussions looking at the relationship between food, health and agriculture in relation to diseases such as COVID-19.

"A lot of people stovepipe these issues into their own categories, and they are all related to each other," he said.

Further, research on climate change needs to examine the impacts on nutrition, Glickman said. Given the impact extreme weather can have on agriculture, Glickman said, agriculture and food need to be bigger parts of major policy talks around climate change.

"Climate and nutrition are part of that particular discussion, and the White House has to be involved as well," Glickman said. "You know, sometimes agriculture just doesn't get the attention at the White House level, and this is a bipartisan criticism, in my view."

Stephen Higgs of the Biosecurity Research Institute at Kansas State University testified about threats to the U.S. food supply. Higgs also stressed the need for more consistent federal funding to help agricultural research.

"We need a system of sustained funding, not a system that has to be reinvigorated or, worse, reinvented," Higgs said, adding that funding is often "a pattern of famine to feast to famine, which is just not a good strategy."

Amy France, who farms near Marienthal, Kansas, alongside her husband, Clint, testified, "Sorghum producers have seen how investments in not just cutting-edge, but bleeding-edge science, where academics and industry are incentivized to collaborate and develop market-based solutions, can result in significant leaps forward."

In response to a question on farmer records and highlighting work done to reduce their carbon footprint, France said USDA's Farm Service Agency is typically the agency where farmers have the greatest connection.

"I think that would be beneficial, having one spot for our information, and we already bring them so many records," France said. "They really have the bible on our farm at their desks."

DTN Political Correspondent Jerry Hagstrom contributed to this article.

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @Chris ClaytonDTN

Chris Clayton