It is early days at the farm bill conference and, so far, conferees are playing nice. During the first meeting on Wednesday afternoon (October 30), opening statements were largely pleasant and not full of the vitriol that marked much of the House farm bill debate in recent months.

It may be a tall order, but if simply left unbothered by leadership in both chambers, the conferees will produce a workable farm bill, said Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, ranking member on the House Agriculture Committee. “I believe if the conference committee is left alone and allowed to do our work, we’ll be able to find some middle ground and finish the farm bill. … We’re actually at the point where most of the staff work has been done. Really, it’s time for the members now to start making the compromises necessary to put this bill together.”

One major hurdle for the conferees to jump is nutrition program funding. Finding an acceptable compromise between the House’s call for $40 billion in cuts and the Senate’s $4 billion will be difficult.

Iowa Rep. Steve King said the nutrition title is “at the forefront of people’s minds. … I will continue to work with my colleagues to implement reforms in the SNAP program, to cut back on waste, fraud and abuse in the program to ensure those funds are available to those who are needy. The cost of SNAP has more than doubled from 2008 to 2012 (and) enrollees have gone from 28.2 million to 47.7 million.”

King is also the author of an amendment that was repeatedly derided during opening statements. Despite his colleagues’ unhappiness, King said the amendment “will remain one of my top priorities moving forward. … This is a simple, straight-forward amendment. I developed it on the premise ... that the commerce clause in the constitution prohibits trade protectionism between the states. It became relevant after California passed a law in 2010 that mandates that beginning in 2015 no eggs be brought into, or sold, in the state unless they’re laid by hens housed in facilities that will effectively double the infrastructure costs to our producers. … The bottom line is no state should be allowed to regulate the production in other states.”

King promised to “go deeper” into the reasons for the amendment in later meetings.

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Regional conflict in the commodity title reared its head with Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts’ comments. “I do have some significant concerns with two proposed commodity titles. The 2010 Senate-passed farm bill contained real reform. We ended federal subsidies that encouraged farmers to plant for the government – target price programs. This year’s version created a new Adverse Market Program (AMP) tied to decoupled historic-based acres. The House Price Loss Coverage (PLC) program went further backwards, in my view, and we coupled production to planted acres and set high fixed target prices.”

A modern farm bill, continued Roberts “should not create planting, marketing, or international trade distortions. Let me be clear: target prices should be decoupled and the government should not set prices at a level that practically guarantees profit instead of acting as a risk-management tool.”

Roberts also warned such programs, if kept in the farm bill, invite “serious problems with a WTO complaint. Let me assure you that WTO stove is hot.”

Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss pushed back against Roberts’ worries. “While I understand there are different ideas about what safety net is best, I urge my colleagues to recognize that one program doesn’t work for all crops. Both bills before us attempt to provide producers with options to find what works best for them. That’s certainly a step in the right direction.”

Chambliss said during the Senate farm bill debate “there was general concurrence that the AMP program complements crop insurance and crop insurance complements the AMP program. Producers who don’t feel the revenue-based or shallow loss programs work for them need to be provided an option to manage their risk.”

This view was earlier backed by Oklahoma Rep. Frank Lucas, chairman of both the conference and House Agriculture Committee. “When you understand what farmers do for a living, you understand the need for an effective safety net. When you understand that these catastrophic events can happen all across the country impacting different types of agricultural producers at any given time, you understand the safety net cannot be one-size-fits-all.”

Chambliss, nodding towards the WTO complaint brought by Brazil, also said the upland cotton policies in both farm bill versions “embody fundamental reform that meet our (WTO) commitments. Legislation eliminates or changes all programs providing direct support to those involved in cotton production.”

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Five goals

Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, a veteran of eight farm bills, favors conservation compliance – meaning farmers receiving taxpayer money must practice conservation on their land. “The vast majority of producers already (are involved in conservation). Are we going to say to the few that might be bad actors that they can still get their insurance and stuff” and not be involved in conservation?

Harkin also touched on nutrition program funding. “The fact is, we have a lot of low-income people out there, a lot of kids. People say, ‘There are a lot of single adults out there and they should be working before they get food stamps.’ We learned a long time ago that there are a lot of people out there that have been deinstitutionalized, that have mental health problems. They can do a bit of work here and there but they can’t hold full-time jobs. Yet, we made the decision a long time ago to provide them with access to food. … They don’t qualify for disability but they can’t work full-time. They fall into a grey area.”

Harkin wrapped up saying that Americans have “always looked to this committee to ensure we don’t have beggars on the streets.”

The rising average age of U.S. producers is of particular concern to Minnesota Rep. Tim Walz. “We must look at long-term demographics. There will be nine billion people on the planet, soon. That’s a 60 percent increase in food that we’ll need. The American farmer averages 57 years old. The average web-site producer is 35. You can’t eat web-sites. … We (must have) robust beginning farmer and rancher legislation.”

Texas Rep. Mike Conaway laid out five goals for the conference.

  • Cutting the budget.
  • Crop insurance.

“We better not screw up crop insurance. Crop insurance has already been reduced by some $17 billion in spending since 2008. That’s enough.

“Due to Brazil’s WTO case, crop insurance is about all my cotton farmers have left.”  

  • A strong commodity title.

“Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation about planting distortions. We’ve gotten this far in the farm bill process with zero thanks to the groups who recklessly obsessed over this issue. They ought to know that nobody at this table is talking about going back to pre-1996, when farmers had to plant for the farm bill. They also ought to know that the House and Senate farm bills both use planted acres while capping them at different levels.”

  • Food stamps.

“I’m not so much concerned about (reduced funding) as I am about getting policies that promote work and dignity in the effort.”

  • Regulatory burdens.

“Throughout the conference I will be working to avoid placing additional undue regulatory burdens on our producers.”

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 Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader had a warning for his fellow conferees. “If we don’t get this job done here, I can guarantee you (House and Senate leadership) will be glad to get it done. They do not know what you know about nutrition. They do not know what you know about farm country policy.

“If we do not reach agreement in a bipartisan manner – emphasizing what we agree on not what we disagree on – we will lose control of the farm bill and we’ll have disaster before us.”