The Farm Bill: Part I: Conflicts and Compromise

By Eleanor Guerrero
Thursday, August 2, 2018

Courtesy photo

Montana farmers are concerned that tariff wars may shrink their world market, permanently replacing them with other eager trade partners.

Montana farmers and ranchers are a proud and patient lot. They deal with uncertainty all the time. They wait to see if their crops will grow to harvest and whether their livestock will survive and thrive for market. They wait to see whether the climate will be favorable or not.

So when they responded to tariffs placed on their grains and possibly to meat in the future, it was not lack of patience that moved them to protest.

American farmers slammed by their escalating trade disputes with China and other countries have been offered $12 billion in emergency relief by the Administration.

Montana Senator Jon Tester said to CCN on Wednesday, July 25, “Agriculture is the state’s top industry, our economic driver.”

Tester said the last thing farmers need is “less certainty.” The tariffs will create “a pinch on farmers not seen since the ‘80’s.”

He noted, “These relationships don’t develop overnight. It takes trust. It takes generations for these relationships. If lost, it will take generations to get them back.”

“If” we can get them back, according to Tester. “Russia and Argentina are circling like sharks to get our markets. What’s the end game here?” he asked.

Senator Steve Daines was also concerned. “I am relieved he has more narrowly tailored our trade sanctions, than originally proposed, however, I remain concerned that tariffs will increase costs on Montana working families, farmers and ranchers.” He sees “Free, fair and smart trade is vital…”

Representative Greg Gianforte had said in March about aluminum and steel tariffs, “These tariffs are a bad idea, because they could lead to Montana ag products being shut out of foreign markets.”

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said the relief will spend billions on “gold crutches,” adding, “This administration’s tariffs and bailouts aren’t going to make America great again, they’re just going to make it 1929 again.”

South Dakota Senator, John Thune (R), said farmers want a market, not welfare. Taxpayers will pay “in lieu of a trade policy that actually opens and expands markets.”

Tester sees “more farmers going broke…” To help, he said, “Washington must do more. We need a strong Farm Bill.”

The Farm Bill (FB) provides farmers with basic and traditional support but has not yet been renewed by Congress. It expires in a few months.

Gianforte said, ““The Farm Bill strengthens the safety net for Montana farmers and ranchers, provides them with greater certainty, improves the health of our forests, and gets Montanans back to work,”

Daines said he is supportive of the Farm Bill and looks forward to getting the final product to President Trump’s desk for signature.

Ervin Schlemmer, a Joliet farmer, has been pushing for the FB. “I feel real good about it,” he said. Schlemmer raises sugar beets, corn, malt barley, cattle and runs a feed lot. “We’re diversified,” he said, “on purpose.”

He noted, “The biggest thing is farmers have to have a safety net.”

While farmers may look rich in land, usually one or two bad years could bury them in debt and loss. According to northernag.net, a good year means a farmer can make up to $75,000, a bad year means big losses, up to $37,000. But this formula is deceptive. In Montana, there are about 28,000 farms averaging 2,134 acres but they also include family farms under 250 acres and large farms of 1400 acres. Slightly more than half of all farms now lose money each year, according to the USDA. Rising loan interest rates hurt and trade tensions threaten export markets. Most farmers are middle class.

The first FB predates the War on Poverty of the ‘60’s, but serves a similar purpose of giving a leg up. Created by Congress in 1933, to give a safety net to farmers when farm prices plummeted after World War I and European demand dropped, farmers today also fear the market shrinking.

Schlemmer said, “For one, the (FB) sugar provisions don’t cost the taxpayers at all. It keeps balance in the market. We can’t compete with foreign businesses that are subsidized (heavily) growers (by their governments).”

Another important FB benefit is crop insurance. “Drought, flood, hail. We’ve had plenty already,” he said. “Most farmers take advantage of crop insurance. The majority, I’d say. It’s very important,” added Schlemmer.

Noted Schlemmer, “There’s a pretty narrow margin of profit. If disaster strikes, got to get your expenses back. It keeps us in business.”

Livestock reimbursement is another crucial FB benefit. Schlemmer said calving weather was rough this year. “Cold winter, then wet, and a long winter. Crypto (Crypto-sporidium, a protozoa) loves damp, cool weather.” Not only did the calves die from exposure in the hard weather, they also died from Crypto. “But most died from the weather,” he observed.

The disease is highly contagious often infecting crews, the farmer and his wife. One farmer compared it to giardia since you have two weeks of diarrhea. There is medication for people but it is expensive, about $800 for 6 pills.

“A lot of ranchers got it,” said Schlemmer of Crypto this spring. “They usually just let it run its course,” so to speak.

No medication is available to save the calves. If not rehydrated, they die. Medication exists in Canada and Europe according to Schlemmer’s son, Greg, “but the U.S. makes you wait 7 years for testing.” The disease is a familiar foe adding more risks in very cold, damp weather.

“Cold calving,” explained Ervin. “You have to live out there every night. If you’re not there, within a minute of the calf dropping it won’t survive if it’s blowing cold snow or below zero. It’s kind of a 24 hour job.”

Ranchers’ calf losses were pretty high this year. “You either sell your cows or breed in the summer and hope for a better year next year.”

The tariff relief to farmers will start around Labor Day with direct payments to producers of soybeans, sorghum, corn, wheat, cotton, dairy and farmers raising hogs. Some types of fruits, nuts, rice, legumes, dairy products, beef and pork, would be purchased by the government.

The House version of the Farm Bill was passed on June

21.

On June 28, the Senate passed its version.

The Senate Bill includes SNAP (food) provisions similar to prior years. The Senate had bipartisan support. The Budget Office’s most recent projections are for total FB spending from 2018 to 2028 to be $867 billion.  

Reauthorizing the farm bill on time is a priority in farm country. Traditionally, urban Democrats support nutrition programs with farmstate lawmakers supporting crop insurance, farm credit, and land conservation.  

The House version has more restrictions on SNAP and farmer benefits. Key differences between the House and Senate bills, are primarily in regard to the food stamp program (SNAP), farm subsidy caps and conservation initiatives.

Senate Bill (S.) 3042, mostly maintains the status quo. The SNAP program serves more than 40 million people annually and accounts for almost 80 percent of the cost of the FB over five years. Food stamps is a program from the 60’s War on Poverty, to uplift hungry Americans and provide nutrition to families. The poverty rate dropped.

The House bill renews farm programs such as crop insurance and land conservation (it would almost eliminate Conservation Stewardship addressing soil, air and water quality).

The House bill limits circumstances to be eligible for SNAP, and earmarks $1 billion to expand work training programs. Some Democrats have expressed outrage calling it “cruel and destructive.”

Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota (D) House Ag Committee, said of the bill “It still leaves farmers and ranchers vulnerable, it worsens hunger and it fails rural communities.”

Some conservatives in the GOP would prefer to lessen farm subsidies or phase them out entirely.

The biggest challenge will come on the food stamp front.

As for a final Farm Bill, Schlemmer said, “I feel confident about the men in the committee. They understand agriculture.” With compromise he said, “I think in the end, we’ll have a good Farm Bill.”

On Sept. 30, the current bill expires.

Upcoming Events

  • Monday, November 19, 2018 - 7:00pm
    Joliet Group meets at the Community Center Monday at 7 p.m.
  • Tuesday, November 20, 2018 - 7:00pm
    Now Group meets at the Bridger United Methodist Church, 222 W. Broadway (west entrance of church) Tuesday at 7 p.m.
  • Thursday, November 22, 2018 - 7:00pm
    Meets every Thursday, 7 p.m. – 8 p.m. at the Red Lodge Area Community Foundation, 122 S. Hauser. It is open to all. 425- 1755.
  • Thursday, November 22, 2018 - 7:00pm
    Clarks Fork Group meets at St. Joseph’s Catholic Hall, north end of Montana Avenue, Thursday at 7 p.m.
  • Monday, November 26, 2018 - 7:00pm
    Joliet Group meets at the Community Center Monday at 7 p.m.
  • Tuesday, November 27, 2018 - 7:00pm
    Now Group meets at the Bridger United Methodist Church, 222 W. Broadway (west entrance of church) Tuesday at 7 p.m.

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