Political climate in Washington friendlier for peanuts, but challenges ahead

BY Jim Hendricks

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TIFTON, Albany Herald, January 21, 2017 | comments

TIFTON — Peanut growers can again expect attacks on their commodity program as a new farm bill is written over the next year and a half, but a strong legislative team is in place to shepherd the peanut title of the bill through Congress, a long-time peanut lobbyist said last week.

“We really have a strong team in multiple committees going into this next 215th Congress as we tee up the farm bill,” Bob Redding with the The Redding Firm told growers Thursday at the 41st annual Georgia Peanut Farm Show at the University of Georgia Tifton Campus Conference Center.

“Once the antis figure where the expenditures are, where the money is, they will go after it,” Redding said, noting that crop insurance is “a big part of the farm bill. It will again be under attack.” Peanut program opponents will try to downsize the number of growers who can participation in crop insurance and will push gross income testing, he said. Conservation programs also will come under fire, he predicted.

 

As there was with the 2014 farm bill, there has been talk in the House of splitting the nutrition portion of the bill from the agriculture portion, but Redding said he doubted that would get past the Senate, where the filibuster can bring any such effort to a halt.

“In the Senate, it will be difficult under regular order to get 60 votes (to split the bill),” he said.

In the upper Chamber, Georgia Sen. David Perdue, R-Sea Island, is a member of the Committee on Nutrition, Agriculture and Forestry, as is Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., who helped the peanut title survive in the 2014 bill. Sen. Jeff Session, R-Ala., is on the committee now, but it will likely be a brief tenure since he is up for Senate confirmation for attorney general. Redding said his hope is Session’s successor will move into that committee slot.

Sen. Johnny Isakson serves on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and both he and Perdue serve on subcommittees with responsibilities that include involving State Department, USAID, Millennium Challenge Corporation, and Peace Corps management and international operations, bilateral international development policy, and bilateral foreign assistance.

Looking at the House Agriculture Committee, Redding said it was “one of the most cohesive groups I’ve ever seen in the eight farm bills I’ve been involved in. They understand each other’s districts and the commodities.”

Georgia has three lawmakers on the Ag Committee. Rep. Austin Scott, R-Tifton, also chairs the committee’s Commodity Exchanges, Energy and Credit Subcommittee, with Rep. David Scott, D-Atlanta, serving as ranking minority member on that subcommittee. Rep. Rick Allen, R-Augusta, also is a member of the Ag Committee.

Meanwhile, Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Albany, is the ranking member of a House panel that’ also important to agriculture, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies.

With David Perdue’s cousin, former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue tapped by President Donald Trump to serve as his secretary of agriculture and American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall hailing from Georgia, peanuts growers are positioned well, Redding said.

Secretary-select Perdue and Duvall will be “a really good team for us,” Redding said. “We look forward to working with them over the next 18 months on this farm bill.”

He said town hall listening sessions on the farm bill should get under way by the second quarter of this year.

“There’s not much talk now about extension of the (2014) farm bill, but you can rest assured there will be more talk about that if the bill starts to struggle,” he said.

In an interview Thursday with The Albany Herald, Redding said the critical issue is helping farmers make enough income to stay in business.

Ag lenders will tell you, he said, “There are a lot of folks who haven’t been on the margin in the past who are now on the margin.”

“A lot of it is about prices and commodity prices have not been great in recent times,” he said. “We’re hopeful with various commodities we’ll see more in the marketplace. These farmers have to sell their commodities for a profit.”

Research programs conducted by the University of Georgia and other universities have greatly improved production, “but if the farm’s not profitable, these guys can’t just keep spending their equity,” Redding said. “We’ve got to get prices where they need to be. The farm safety net, crop insurance, is an important piece of the puzzle.”

 

With the Trump administration, he said, “Our folks are hopeful there’ll be a better understanding of agriculture and the impact on the farm.” Secretary-select Perdue can be instrumental in that understanding by the administration.

“He has the whole picture,” Redding said. “He’s dealt with grains. He grew up with tree nuts, peaches and vegetables, peanuts and cotton. … He’s pragmatic, he was as governor. He understands business. He understands the agriculture piece, he understands the program piece, the research, Extension — all those pieces and how they work together.”

Perdue also has “great allies” in Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black and Duvall, Redding said.

“They all know each other,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for us to have a working environment where they understand what these (Southern) farmers do, how they farm.”

Redding said there also is hope that the Trump administration will be friendlier when it comes to regulations.

“One thing our folks are very excited about is the regulatory piece,” he said. “We’ve have numerous onerous regs that have come out of this (Obama) administration – the Waters of the U.S., various food safety and chemical regs … the overtime regs with the Department of Labor.”

A prime example, Redding said, is the H2A Visa program. That seasonal agricultural worker program allows growers who anticipate a shortage of domestic help to bring nonimmigrant foreign workers to the U.S. to perform agricultural labor on a temporary or seasonal basis. President George W. Bush tried to remove some of the more difficult regulations with the H2A program.

“Georgia is a big user of the H2A program. They want to do it the right way with guest workers,” Redding said. “The Obama administration reversed those (Bush) regs the first term. It made a complicated, burdensome program more burdensome, pushing farmers away from the guest worker program via the Department of Labor versus encouraging them to sign up for this program. That’s one of the things we hope the Department of Labor will reconsider with a new administration coming in.”

The bottom line, Redding suggested, is that farmers have to have a healthy bottom line to stay in business and feed the nation and the world.

“The antis continue to attack these programs with gross income tests,” he said. “They don’t understand the Southern farming practices. You can’t make it with cotton and peanuts with 50 acres. It’s just not feasible with economies of scale. Watching that farm income number is very important, and right now it needs a lot of improvement.”

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