USDA playing catch up to implement the new farm bill

Jonathan Knutson
Forum News Service

Approving the new farm bill was an important, necessary step for U.S. agriculture. But the legislation still needs to be implemented — a task slowed and complicated by the federal government shutdown several ag leaders say.

Now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will do what’s needed to put the farm bill into practice as quickly as possible, said Steve Censky, USDA deputy undersecretary.

“Congress has done its work (passing the farm bill). Now it’s our turn,” Censky said.

Censky spoke during a session on implementing the 2018 Farm Bill held Feb. 5 in Washington, D.C., by the Farm Foundation, which bills itself as “an agricultural policy institute cultivating dynamic non-partisan collaboration to meet society’s needs for food, fiber, feed and energy.”

The session was carried online, where it was available to journalists and others.

Also appearing at the Feb. 5 session: Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairman of the Senate Ag Committee; Barry Flinchbaugh, professor emeritus of agricultural economics at Kansas State University; Tara Smith, vice president of federal affairs with Michael Torrey Associates, where she works with clients on crop insurance, among other things; and Alan Bjerga, senior vice president of communications with the National Milk Producers Federation.

The farm bill, the centerpiece of federal food and agricultural policy, is updated about every five years. The old farm bill expired in 2018, and a new one was approved by Congress on Dec. 20 and signed into law by President Donald Trump on Dec. 21. But then the federal government shut down for 35 days, stopping USDA from working to implement the farm bill.

“We plan on catching up very quickly. We don’t plan on using the shutdown as an excuse (for not implementing it),” Censky said. “We have a big job to do as we move forward (and) we’ll move quickly.”

USDA plans “listening sessions” to gather input on implementation, and will announce its schedule once it’s been determined, Censky said.

Fortunately, though the new farm bill contains many changes, the revisions aren’t considered “revolutionary” or fundamental, which helps to moderate the effects of the delay in implementation, the ag officials said.

“This was not the time for a revolutionary farm bill,” Roberts said. “We needed to provide certainty and predictability.”

“What do farmers need more than anything else? It’s certainty,” which this farm bill provides, Flinchbaugh said.

“Net farm income has been cut in half in the last five years. That’s an astounding statistic. We’ve got problems in farm country,” Flinchbaugh said. “We’re in the midst of a vicious trade war that will cost agriculture billions. History shows that no one wins a trade war. Everybody loses.”

So, “Agriculture needs this farm bill. This is a farmer-friendly farm bill,” Flinchbaugh said. “USDA has plenty of catching up to do (and) time is of the essence.”

Smith, addressing the crop insurance provisions in the new farm bill, described them as “improvements and tweaks to a program that farmers will tell you works for them.”

Bjerga said the dairy industry, hard-pressed by a downturn in revenue, will benefit from changes in the new farm program.

His industry has seen “more than marginal improvements” in the new legislation, and “dairy is excited about this farm bill,” he said.

The new farm bill replaces the former Margin Protection Program for Dairy with Dairy Margin Coverage. The DMC offers reduced premiums and a one-time signup bonus, among other things.