At first blush, the farm bill recently passed by Congress is being welcomed by sugar beet growers.
Most in agriculture are happy to have a new five-year ag policy framework they can work with, said local sugar beet company official Ric Rodriguez of Powell.
“We are just starting to hear from all the national farmer organizations, and the reactions I’ve heard are all positive,” said Rodriguez, vice chairman of the board of Western Sugar Cooperative, which operates in Wyoming and three other states.
The farm bill — approved overwhelmingly by both Houses of Congress — says all the right things as far as sugar beet growers are concerned, Rodriguez said.
But there is more to the equation: “The big concern is for the government to run the program correctly,” he noted.
The sugar program was left virtually untouched in the five-year reauthorization of the farm bill. It gives protection to sugar growers from the market being oversupplied by highly subsidized foreign sugar. That’s a monitoring function left to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“When they [the government] don’t control the imports as the law intended, we end up with an oversupplied market and lower prices,” Rodriguez explained.
Already a concern to sugar beet growers, he said, is the delay in the appointment of an undersecretary to run the program.
“We have been operating with a temporary person,” Rodriguez said, “because the appointment has been one of the many held up in Congress.”
The sugar program operates at no cost to the consumers, Rodriguez maintains. It offers low interest loans for sugar company borrowing, and is one of the only commodities to put money back into the U.S. Treasury from interest paid on the sugar loans.
The newly updated farm bill — which authorizes $867 billion worth of federal spending for agricultural programs and food assistance — drew mixed reviews from Wyoming’s Congressional delegation.
U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., voted for The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 last week, calling it a vote “to protect Wyoming ranchers.”
Cheney said the five-year reauthorization of the bill is “essential to the continuity of programs relied on by farmers and ranchers in Wyoming as they work every day to feed the nation.”
She said the bill will provide tools and resources to help farmers and ranchers deal with factors outside their control — including market volatility, poor weather and natural disasters.
Beyond that, she said the bill will encourage the development of more broadband access in rural areas, improve the management of public lands to prevent wildfires, maintain the sugar policies that Wyoming beet growers rely on, among other positive provisions.
However, Wyoming’s U.S. Senators — Republicans Mike Enzi and John Barrasso — both voted against the final version of the legislation; Enzi and Barrasso said they didn’t like the changes that were made after the bill passed the Senate last summer.
“While I’m pleased the 2018 farm bill included a number of good provisions for Wyoming agriculture producers, I believe it fell short in addressing some of the key challenges our western agriculture communities face,” Barrasso said in a statement. “It failed to include meaningful forest management provisions important for wildlife habitat and for ranchers who need healthy federal lands for grazing. In another year when Wyoming and other western states were impacted by catastrophic wildfires, effective forest management is more important than ever.”
Enzi said lawmakers weren’t given enough time to review the final language of the bill, which was a compromise between two different versions passed by the House and Senate last summer.
“The vote was held less than 24 hours after the [revised] text was released,” Enzi said in a statement. “That is why I voted against the final version. It is critical to review possible intended and unintended consequences of legislation before voting.”
“For example,” he said, “I have heard that the bill failed to address key concerns from ranchers over federal management provisions that affect grazing and wildlife habitat.”
While called the farm bill, the legislation includes funding for not only agricultural programs but also for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which used to be known as the Food Stamp Program. According to Barrasso, more than 75 percent of the $867 billion of federal money will go toward SNAP.
Some Republicans — particularly in the House — had fought to increase the work requirements for SNAP recipients.
“Under current law, able-bodied adults who do not have dependent children and are under the age of 50 must work for 20 hours a week or participate in job training to receive food aid under the program,” McClatchy Washington Bureau explained. “The original House Republican proposal expanded the work requirements to include people up to age 59 and parents of children over the age of 6. It also included proposals that would have made it harder for states to give exceptions to those rules.”
Cheney said the final bill does give President Donald Trump the ability to strengthen work requirements for SNAP, but the changes proposed by the House were mostly stripped from the final version that passed Congress. National pundits noted that Congressional Republicans lost some of their legislative bargaining power in November’s midterm elections, when Democrats won control of the House.
Barrasso said the final farm bill didn’t go far enough in addressing a number of expensive federal programs, including SNAP.
“I believe Congress missed a real opportunity to improve accountability, help those Americans most in need and protect taxpayer dollars for the next four years,” he said.
The final version of the act passed the U.S. House of Representatives 369-47 and the U.S. Senate 87-13, with Barrasso and Enzi among the 13 in opposition; the two Wyoming senators had voted for the version that passed the Senate last summer.
It is expected that President Donald Trump will sign the act into law soon.
“... It looks like the farm bill is in very, very good shape. So we’ll get the farm bill,” Trump said at Saturday evening’s Congressional Ball, according to a transcript of his remarks released by the White House. “Got to take care of the farmers.”