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Farm bill stalwarts say money 'will be hard to come by'

Congressman Collin Peterson speaks during a town hall event on health care at Horizon Middle School on Monday, April 10, 2017. David Samson / The Forum

WASHINGTON — Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., was talking with a group of ag journalists when Rep. Collin Peterson. D-Minn., strolled into the room, a little early for his own meeting with the group.

Roberts, generally considered one of the funniest people in Congress, greeted Peterson with with a few good-natured quips, and Peterson responded in kind. After a bit more banter between the two, Roberts returned to his presentation to the ag journalists.

The obvious rapport between the two, which occurred April 25 in a Senate meeting room during the North American Agricultural Journalists annual convention, reflects one of the great advantages that U.S. farmers and ranchers enjoy as Congress begins to tackle a new farm bill. Though Roberts and Peterson belong to different parties and different bodies of Congress, they and other farm-state legislators have worked together to write and pass farm bills in the past.

The farm bill, the centerpiece of the federal government's food and agricultural policies, holds great importance for most U.S. farmers and ranchers. The current farm bill, passed in 2014, expires in 2018, and Congress has begun preliminary work on a new one. In the past, farm bill critics — primarily from urban areas — work to cut federal spending on ag programs, while farm bill supporters — primarily from agricultural areas — work to maintain that spending.

During their April 25 meetings with journalists, both Roberts, chairman of the Senate ag committee, and Peterson, ranking Democrat on the Republican-controlled House ag committee, expressed confidence that a new farm bill will be approved. But there will be challenges, Roberts and Peterson said.

"Money (federal funding) will be hard to come by," said Roberts, who stressed that the need is great, given poor ag commodity prices and weak farm profitability.

Peterson, whose district covers heavily agricultural northwest Minnesota, said generally excellent yields in 2016 partially offset poor prices, keeping farm profitability from falling even lower.

Now, "I don't see any turnaround in prices," so the return of below-average or even average yields will lead to "some pretty significant problems" for ag producers, increasing the need for federal support programs, Peterson said.

But Peterson doesn't anticipate major changes to most existing federal ag programs, though he supports revision in some U.S. dairy and cotton policies. Some dairy producers have criticized a federal dairy program created by the 2014 farm bill, while some cotton producers say the 2014 farm bill hasn't done enough for them.

Roberts spoke with reporters shortly after Sonny Perdue was sworn in as new U.S. Ag Secretary. Roberts praised Perdue and the value of having him in place at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But many other top USDA positions remain vacant and need to be filled quickly, Roberts said.

"We'll be receiving nominations for subcabinet appointments. That will be tremendously important," he said.

Roberts, echoing what many in U.S. agriculture are saying, encouraged the Trump administration to emphasize U.S. ag exports, as well as export of U.S. manufactured goods.

"We know we have to export the things we make. But we also have to export the things we grow," Roberts said.