Lobbyist sees tough times for ag legislation

By Rose Schneider

A key lobbyist for the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) told participants at the 94th annual Kansas Farm Bureau meeting Tuesday that “we are not making a lot of progress” in improving the lot of farmers in Washington.

Mary Kay Thatcher, the organization’s senior director of congressional affairs, said the reelection of President Obama meant there would not be the change in ag policy that some farmers hoped to see in the next four years.

Thatcher noted that a large group of moderate Democrats and Republicans were replaced by extreme liberals and conservatives, keeping the division of power the same but increasing the polarization between the two sides. She estimates this will only make farm legislation and other bills harder to pass.

Thatcher said 40 percent of the members of the House of Representatives have fewer than three years of experience. There has also been a switch to more women and minorities in positions that were previously held by men; she said both of those changes will affect the nation’s farmers.

“It’s going to be a big job to go in and educate them about agriculture,” said Thatcher.

Currently, the $1 trillion, ten-year farm bill is on hold with many items in negotiation between the two sides. About three-quarters of the bill’s allocations go to things such as food stamps and school meals for children, nine percent goes to crop insurance, seven percent to conservation and the remainder to programming.

Negotiations over what is referred to in Washington as the fiscal cliff bring as many concerns with the farming industry as elsewhere.

“If we don’t do something, 98 percent of Americans will pay more taxes starting Jan. 1,” said Thatcher. “The farm administration will have to find places to make $109 million in cuts.”

One of the current struggles is how much to cut the food stamp program.

“The Republicans want to cut it by more than $16 billion, and the Democrats don’t want to cut more than a nickel from the $770 billion,” said Thatcher.

Participation in the food stamp program has gone up 70 percent since 2008. According to Thatcher, only one in three children pays for his or her school lunch and only one in 16 pays for his or her school breakfast thanks to the program.

She believes that crop insurance programs will be most likely to take the next hit.

“It’s the same idea behind why people rob banks; it’s where the money is,” said Thatcher. “People are going to look at crop insurance for the funds ...  because it’s easy picking.”

In 2012, farmers paid an average of 38 percent in premiums while the government subsidized the remaining 62 percent. A large amount of Arkansas farmers, 59 percent, take advantage of coverage, whereas only three percent of Kansas farmers do.

“We use crop insurance as a marketing tool to even out our highs and lows,” said Jim Schmidt, who has been farming in McPherson County for more than 45 years. “The crop insurance numbers I saw today were at the top of my list.”

Drought conditions complicate the insurance concerns.

“The drought has been the worst I’ve ever experienced in these last two years,” Schmidt said. “It’s very depressing to think of lowering yield expectations when you can’t even remember when it’s been a good year to start with; you always have to hope for a good year the next year…it’s been really tough,” said Schmidt.

The conference continues Wednesday at the Hilton Garden Inn.

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