Witnesses to first House Ag Committee Farm Bill hearing offer solutions
WASHINGTON — Several key agricultural leaders lent their expertise with testimonies and comments during the House Agricultural Committee hearing on Feb. 28.
That first hearing of the 118th Congress in preparation for the 2023 Farm Bill focused on the uncertainty, inflation and regulations challenging current American agriculture.
Zippy Duvall, president, American Farm Bureau Federation, opened his testimony with his observation of plenty of challenges, “Beginning with losses experienced from the trade war with China, pandemic lockdowns, supply chain disruptions, and record-high input costs, farmers and ranchers have been facing unprecedented volatility in recent years.”
But Duvall assured he remains optimistic, “Through science, technology and innovation and the get-it-done attitude of rural Americans, no challenge has been too great. But we must make sure that farmers and ranchers have the tools necessary to succeed, including support from good public policy and strong markets both domestically and abroad.”
“Food security is national security,” Duvall said, and urged lawmakers to recognize the significance of the Farm Bill.
Noting bipartisan effort in past Farm Bills, he requested rising above partisanship and passing legislation to protect food security for all Americans and the future success of our farmers and ranchers.
Reflecting the critical need for crop protection tools, Duvall expressed concern by the push to regulate pesticides in ways that directly contradict decades-long EPA conclusions.
Regarding the SEC’s proposed reporting requirement on climate change, he remarked it is highly burdensome and it lacks statutory authority.
Duvall listed principles the Farm Bureau supports: increasing baseline funding for farm programs; maintaining a unified Farm Bill with both nutrition and farm programs; and prioritizing risk management tools funding with both federal crop insurance and commodity programs.
Executive Director Peter Friedmann, Agriculture Transportation Coalition, related the importance of transportation’s role in trade, “There is virtually nothing in U.S. agriculture and forest products grown or produced in this country that cannot be sourced or substituted with products from elsewhere in the world; if we cannot deliver affordably and dependably, both our foreign and U.S. customers can, and have proven they will, shift their purchases to those other countries, sometimes permanently. This has in fact occurred periodically, for pork, beef, cotton, almonds, soybeans, fresh fruit, etc.”
Friedmann pointed to a range of deficiencies in our capacity. He first thanked Representatives Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) and Jim Costa (D-Calif.) for their roles in passing the Ocean Shipping Reform Act.
However, the Act is still in play, with implementation by the Federal Maritime Commission.
He indicated that unclear regulatory jurisdiction for international ocean shipping that originates or ends at inland locations impedes freight movement.
Also, there are only 10 carriers, all foreign owned. Overwhelmed ports plus the longshore labor contract dispute have caused coastal cargo shifts. The past few years supply chain crisis has exposed the inefficiency due to infrastructure drawbacks.
Truck transportation is so problematic with regulatory truck weight inadequacy, driver shortage, driver age and hour rules, that travel across the country is impossible, he reported.
To illustrate the complexity of the export supply chain, Friedmann traced the process with truck, rail, rail ramps, marine terminals, cold storage facilities, chassis, and ships. A delay or shortage of any one, or at any point would disrupt or even prevent the flow of agriculture.
President and CEO of The Fertilizer Institute Corey Rosenbusch stressed, “Fertilizer is a globally traded commodity, subject to international pressures and geopolitical events. And it has been global supply and demand that has led to the current market environment.”
The biggest fertilizer producer, China, with nearly 30 percent, imposed export restrictions last year.
Belarus, with one-fifth of the world’s potash supply, is sanctioned out of the global market.
The largest supplier is Russia, with 20 percent.
Its Ukraine war disrupted the supply chain.
Russia also restricted Europe’s natural gas supply, which resulted in shutting down 70 percent of Europe’s nitrogen production due to the high costs.
Rosenbusch pointed out, “Natural gas is the feedstock and energy source for ammonia which is the building block for all nitrogen fertilizers.”
It accounts for 70 to 90 percent of the ammonia costs, and its U.S. price doubled in 2022.
Each of the three macro nutrients essential for crop growth—nitrogen, phosphate and potash—has a distinct market.
Last years’ terrible rail service, plus trucking constraints made worse along the Canadian border due to the vaccine mandate added to fertilizer woes. Low grain stocks and high grain prices means demand will likely remain strong going into spring, according to TFI.
Rosenbusch named solutions for Congress consideration: place potash and phosphate on the Critical Materials list; support abundant, safe, affordable natural gas; support reliable rail service, driver recruitment and retention for trucking; invest in water and roadway infrastructure; and revamp conservation programs to empower retail agronomists and certified crop advisors to help farmers access them.
Michael Twining, Vice president of Sales & Marketing, Willard, Agri-Service, testified on behalf of the Agricultural Retailers Association.
Twining said the factors that led to economic uncertainty included substantially higher energy costs, higher crop input prices, an unreliable transportation supply chain, increased regulatory burdens, and disruptions in the global markets.
Twining stressed that modern agricultural technologies are essential as the industry is asked to do more nationally and globally with less land, water, and critical inputs.
While USDA predicts declining crop cash receipts, Twining cited recent actions by EPA that are inconsistent with the statutes, not science and risk-based, including chlorpyrifos, glyphosate, and three dicamba herbicides. He also noted that county-level bans are ineffective, inefficient and overly broad.
Recognizing that the Administration’s focus on climate policy provides ways that agriculture can contribute significant solutions, but he noted that implementing natural gas and diesel policies are costly.
For the Farm Bill, Twining recommended strengthening the crop insurance program that promotes voluntary conservation and increased research funding. He also supported several of the recommendations by Friedmann and Rosenbusch.
Mike Brown, President, National Chicken Council, said “Chicken is America’s preferred protein, and Americans are on track to consume over 102.4 pounds per chicken per person in 2023, more than any other meat protein source.”
The chicken industry’s model of American innovation and efficiency, Brown said, is threatened by proposed overreaching, costly regulations that would result in job loss, family farm decimation, fewer exports, and more expensive chicken for consumers.
Brown urged the Committee to look critically at three regulatory barriers being erected. Dismantling the proven successful contract system of the Packers and Stockholders Act proposals, he said would create uncertainty while imposing recordkeeping burdens and litigation costs. The beef, pork, and turkey industries would be harmed as well.
He noted that studies have shown that running evisceration lines at 175 birds per minute rather than 140 bpm does not compromise food or worker safety. In addition, declaring Salmonella an adulterant in frozen breaded and specific stuffed products has not been thoroughly supported despite NCC’s long-sought effort to work with USDA to develop a science-based policy that enhances food safety without drastic negative impacts.
NCC has twice petitioned USDA to establish labeling requirements for the products.
Rob Larew, President, National Farmers Union, emphasized, “Family farmers and ranchers should be allowed and empowered to do what we do best: produce a safe and nutritious food supply for communities. Laws, rules, and regulations should help us do that, not hinder us.”
“Inflation is exacerbated by consolidation and lack of competition in the food system,” Larew said. A select few firms control the market for farm inputs, processing, manufacturing, distribution, food service and grocery.
Accordingly, he stressed adding a title on competition in the Farm Bill.
Among other factors, the NFU supports mandatory, uniform labeling for food products, especially to clarify misleading claims that prevent consumers from making fully informed decisions.
Also, the right to repair policies which permit access to parts, software, documentation and other tools, Larew said, would benefit farmers.
Regarding the Packers and Stockyards Act, he urged transparency and adequate enforcement to correct unfair contract terms and depressed prices to farmers.
Larew related a recent position by the U.S. Solicitor General that federal pesticide registration and labeling requirements do not preclude states from imposing additional labeling requirements, even if counter to federal findings.
Larew’s pointed out that an impractical patchwork of labels could threaten producers’ access to science-based crop protection.
Larew indicated that NFU was heartened by the recent actions for additional funding for conservation programs, USDA’s Climate-Smart Commodities, Growing Climate Solutions Act and the SUSTAINS Act.
In addition to the comments above regarding regulations, Zippy Duvall, Michael Twining, and Rob Larew assessed the lack of clarity and overreach of the Waters of the United States (WOTUS).
Plus, each noted that the H-2A program needed to be reworked. (Full testimonies can be accessed via the House Ag Committee web materials.)
Chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture Representative Glenn “GT” Thompson (R-Pa.) in closing the meeting said, “Today’s hearing has really shined a spotlight on the issues confronting producers and the entire agriculture sector from the farm to the consumer.”
He added, “Over the course of the next several months, the Committee will be holding numerous hearings and will be continuing our Farm Bill listening sessions at various locations across the country.”