(Western Farm Press): Listening session at Sunbelt Ag Expo offers opportunity to vent
Cotton in the farm bill, crop insurance, labor, praise for the peanut program, NAFTA, SNAP, and feral hog management gave three U.S. House Agriculture Committee members something to take back to Washington and ponder as they prepare to mark up the next farm bill.
Representatives Al Lawson (D-Fla, 5); Austin Scott, (R-Ga. 8); and Rick Allen, (R-Ga. 12), held a listening session during opening day of the 40th annual Sunbelt Ag Expo in Moultrie, Ga. All three acknowledged that the farm bill needs tweaking and that maintaining an adequate safety net was essential to keeping America not only food secure but also able to continue to provide food and fiber to consumers around the world.
Richey Seaton, executive director of the Georgia Cotton Commission, reminded the committee members that in spite of recent small blips in the cotton market, producers have been hard hit for the past five years with production costs outpacing returns. “When cottonseed prices dropped, producers saw a $20 to $40 swing in revenue per bale. That’s a significant drop.”
He said low cottonseed prices mean producers are not able to offset ginning costs.
Seaton also commented on the yield loss Georgia cotton producers suffered from Hurricane Irma. “We’re looking at a significant loss,” he said, “and will see even more as harvest progresses. Crop insurance is vital for cotton producers.”
TITLE I FOR COTTON
But cotton farmers need more than an insurance-based safety net, he added. “Cotton needs to be back in Title I of the farm bill, but we need assistance before that. If cotton is included as a covered commodity in a farm bill passed in 2018, it will be 2020 until we can get a new program in place.”
Ronnie Lee, a south Georgia cotton farmer and current chairman of the National Cotton Committee, reminded Scott, Lawson and Allen that cotton farmers have been hard-pressed to make ends meet for several years. “For the past five years, the returns for cotton have fallen short of cost of production. For the past three years, cotton returns have been significantly less than production costs. We need a comprehensive cotton segment in Title I of the next farm bill.”
Lee said payment limitations and the definition of “actively engaged” also need attention. “To be efficient, sometimes we need to add acreage,” Lee said. “Tight payment limitations are not a viable option for today’s ag economy.”
“A lot of issues will be on the table with the next farm bill,” said Armond Morris, chairman of the Georgia Peanut Commission. “We may risk losing a lot of farmers in our area. We’ve had some tough conditions with high costs and low prices.”
Morris encouraged committee members to maintain the peanut program included in the current farm program. “We may need to tweak it some, but we are glad they put peanuts in the program in the last farm bill.”
Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Gary Black, who moderated the session, asked committee members to consider options to help states control feral hogs. He suggested Congress consider making funds available from the Natural Resource Conservation Service to aid in managing wild hog populations. “Funding from programs like the Environmental Quality Incentive Program,” he said, “would be helpful and would benefit the environment. If Congress could authorize states to use EQIP funds to help control feral hogs, that would help.”
Black noted that the damage wild hogs do to row crops, forage and pasture also affects the environment with scarred landscapes and stream and pond pollution. Feral hogs also carry diseases that may infect domestic livestock and pets.
“We have heard you loud and clear about feral hogs,” Scott said. “They are a nuisance and we need to work with universities to get rid of them. But we also must be careful that what we do is respectful of other wildlife in the area.”
Mark Lattimore, Fort Valley State University, asked the committee to find ways to get Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, funds to needy families “who are not seeing benefits.”
Lawson is recommending that Congress make SNAP funds available to families in Florida and Georgia who lost food supplies when Hurricane Irma knocked power out for days. He said they lost food on hand and would not receive their next SNAP appropriations until next month. “They need food today,” he said.
Lawson recommended making SNAP funds available for use at local restaurants until the end of the month. “People on assistance have no place to go,” he said.
Pecan growers asked that Congress consider changes to a tree insurance program made available in the farm bill. The program insures producers against trees loss, said Jeb Barrow, president of the Georgia Pecan Growers Association. “Something like Irma takes out a lot of trees, but the insurance is too costly.”
“The premium is too expensive,” added Thomas Wayson, Georgia Pecan Commission.
Barrow also asked that pecan producers be included in National Agricultural Statistics Service surveys.
Libba Johnson, who lives on a seventh generation farm near Moultrie, Ga., asked the committee members to continue support of 4-H and FFA programs. “That is extremely important,” she said. Johnson said the leadership and responsibility youth gain from these programs prepare them for careers in agriculture and other occupations.
Rep. Scott pledged continuing support for FFA and 4-H and applauded the work they do in training leaders.
Other speakers commented on the need to improve the H-2A guest worker program to make it more economically feasible for ag employers.
Jorge Abreu, executive director, Dade County, Fla.,Farm Bureau, said NAFTA has imposed an unfair disadvantage on U.S. produce farms. “We compete against a cheaper labor force,” he said.
Rep. Allen said the committee recognizes that the current farm program needs tweaking. “We see issues with the farm bill and cotton,” he said. “A few other things also need to be addressed. We expect farm bill proceedings to continue late this year and into 2018.”
“We need to hear from you,” Scott added. “We need to know what’s working and what’s not working. We want to hear your ideas. We will take your ideas back to Washington to help craft language in the bill.
“Agriculture is a true advantage for America. Our ability to feed ourselves as well as to help feed other countries helps us build relationships around the world,” Scott said.