Saint Nick Edges out Scrooge in Christmas Farm Bill

The 2018 farm bill victory. The changes the new bill brings to the industry and what it means for producers.

Written By: Jeff Harrison

The House broke its farm bill margin of victory record set in 1985 by passing H.R. 2, the Agriculture Improvement Act, on a vote of 369-47, while the Senate racked up its highest margin of victory since 1965, clearing the farm bill on a 87-13 vote.

The measure, slated to govern U.S. farm policy over the next 5 years, is not a panacea for all that ails American agriculture today, but it does provide certainty and a modicum of a safety net with some improvements over the 2014 farm bill.

Farmers will be allowed new flexibility to choose between PLC and ARC for 2019 and 2020 and again in each of the 2021 through 2023 crop years with the elections continuing to be made on a commodity-by-commodity and farm-by-farm basis.

Reference prices for PLC and ARC are allowed to float upward to as high as 115 percent of current levels to keep apace of any increase in prices. Farmers may update their payment yields. Loan rates are increased for nearly all commodities and changes are made to ARC, including primary use of RMA yield data and inclusion of an 80 percent yield plug and use of trend adjusted yields similar to those used in crop insurance.

For sorghum farmers who opted against a yield update the last go around due to drought, the new opportunity is a welcome one. While a loan rate of $2.20 per bushel is not optimal, it is certainly an improvement over $1.95.

The success House negotiators had in beating back harmful changes to actively engaged rules and adjusted gross income means testing was important, but so, too, were the improvements in this area.  The definition of family was logically extended to include nephews and nieces and first cousins. Marketing loan benefits were excluded from the pay limit. The sequester is required to be applied prior to application of the pay limit, and the AGI means test may be waived by the Secretary where he believes environmentally sensitive land of significance would benefit under such a waiver.

Rewarding the use of resource conserving crop rotation is replete in the conservation title, a top sorghum priority, while EQIP funding is increased. The Conservation Stewardship Program is improved, and the Conservation Reserve Program is better targeted to marginal lands.

Funding for the Market Access Program and the Foreign Market Development program is fully restored with a budget baseline firmly established going forward. In-kind U.S. food aid was safeguarded from those who sought to replace this highly successful humanitarian relief with cash-aid, although a small cash aid pilot advocated by the Senate was agreed to.

Individual FSA operating and ownership loan limits got their first increase in 16 years. Agriculture research funding was increased in order to catch up with Chinese investment, and broadband was finally injected with the kind of quality control requirements and competition to ensure farms, ranches and rural communities get the access they need to do business.

New investment was made in the energy title with changes to ensure sorghum has a bite at the apple under Section 9005, while crop insurance research and development is required to get to the bottom of why sorghum premiums are disproportionately high compared to actual risks, especially when compared to other commodities in the same areas.

Successful House insistence on full funding of animal disease preparedness and response, including a fully funded vaccine bank, is also a vitally important win not only to the livestock sector but to all in production agriculture.

Beyond what was done is what was not done, including the parade of horribles long-time farm bill and crop insurance opponents had in mind, including the first ever imposition of an AGI means test and pay limits on crop insurance, repeal of the Harvest Price Option, fatal cuts to private sector delivery, and authorization for snoop groups to obtain farmer insurance information so it could be disseminated on the web.

Thanks to champions and friends on Capitol Hill, particularly leaders from sorghum country like House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, worries of impending doom from an impenitent Scrooge have given way to imminent improvements—and a Merry Christmas.

God bless us, everyone!