SCOTTSBLUFF, Neb. – U.S. Rep. Adrian Smith (R-Nebraska) and Greg Ibach, director of the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, got an ear full of ideas from a group of producers, landowners and ag lending experts Monday during a listening session in advance of opening discussions on the upcoming 2018 Farm Bill at the University of Nebraska Panhandle Research and Extension Center here.
The current Farm Bill was adopted in 2014 and expires next year. Delays and political maneuvering in advance of adoption of the current legislation hopefully resulted in teachable moments which will be remembered as the current rounds of debate gear up and get under way, Smith said.
“Hopefully, there were lessons learned from the last Farm Bill,” he said. “Delays can be counterproductive. They can certainly be unproductive.”
Concerns in the audience ran the full gamut, from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to irrigation infrastructure to trade as Smith and Ibach took questions and comments in one of a series of meetings of this type around the state. Leading the discussion, Phyllis Norwood, an employee of the Scottsbluff-based Enterprise Irrigation District, noted much of the infrastructure of Enterprise and other, small districts around the region is aging and finding money for repairs or replacements of the systems is becoming a burden.
“Smaller districts just don’t have the money for repairs,” Norwood told the Nebraska Dist. 3 representative. “These districts are in dire need of infrastructure repair. What can be done to assist?”
President Donald Trump has placed infrastructure high on his list of “things to do” in the early days of his presidency, just behind the recently-failed attempts to reform the health care system and the upcoming tax reform work. Smith said, while irrigation infrastructure wasn’t specifically mentioned, he’s circulating letters among his colleagues in the House of Representatives, with an eye toward making Trump aware of the needs of western states.
Issues of agriculture exports and trade with foreign countries were also on many minds during the meeting. With the White House wanting to step away from sweeping, regional trade agreements in favor of deals with individual countries, working out the details of those agreements becomes of paramount importance.
On the heels of trade agreements with Japan and European countries in recent years, country-of-origin labeling, for example, takes on a new priority, said Lyman, Neb.-area rancher Mike Norby. Being able to track, and be accountable for, exactly where a commodity such as Nebraska beef comes from is at the top of the list of prerequisites to trade deals, Smith and Ibach said.
And, with new, emerging markets being explored in China, country-of-origin labeling is in the best interest of both local producers and consumers on the other side of the world, Norby said.
“How can we guarantee it’s Nebraska beef, that’s produced in the United States, and not shipped in from Brazil?” Norby said. “We need to look at this again. If we’re saying it’s made in the U.S., it should be produced in the U.S.
“Is there anything in the (new) Farm Bill to put country of origin labeling back?” he asked. “If we want to get into these Asian markets, and they want transparency, country of origin needs to come back.”
Smith agreed, noting consumers around the world want to know, and should have the opportunity to know, where their food comes from. But, he said, any system implemented in the next iteration of farm legislation needs to institute a “workable system, not government intervention that doesn’t produce results.
“We need a workable system that doesn’t put us in a bad position with international trade,” Smith said. “We can do better by our producers.”
Origin labeling can benefit producers, despite any additional paperwork associated with the practice, Ibach said. Having the background of the commodity attached can go a long way toward positioning producers to earn premium prices for what they raise.
“Give producers a trace-able product, food with a story behind it,” Ibach said. “We can make a difference for our producers, set ourselves apart from the others.”
Also on people’s minds are the portions of the Farm Bill governing nutrition programs, which cover the gamut of food and assistance programs administered by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. While there’s been some talk of severing nutrition programs, which come out as the most expensive portion of farm bills, members of the audience didn’t agree.
Ibach, too, noted the “benefits” of keeping the nutrition programs mated with farm legislation. It goes all the way back to the formation of the ag-education based land grant universities, he said.
“There are benefits to keeping it in the farm program, to keeping the (nutrition) programs in the USDA rather than moving them (to the Dept. of Health and Human Services,” Ibach said. The USDA “understands how food is produced and about nutritional values.”
Also noted in public comments was that, while there are protections for crop farmers via the national crop insurance programs, little if any similar protections are available to livestock producers.
“Everything I am right now is in my cattle,” Norby of Lyman said. “I lose them,
“This needs to be addressed – very seriously addressed,” he said. “I’ve got a lot riding on the livestock industry but there’s not a lot out there for safety nets.”
Overall, Smith called the afternoon’s discussions productive. Particularly on the issue of trade with foreign markets, ongoing discussion both with the people who produce the food and consumers in markets around the world is important, he said.
“I certainly appreciate hearing from producers themselves,” Smith said. “I know it’s a busy time of year but I’m glad we had a good turnout and a good conversation.”