With both houses of Congress back in session this week, observers expect a relatively quick conclusion to negotiations on a new farm bill—but continued uncertainty about reform of federal immigration law.
House and Senate conferees on the farm bill, who began negotiating in October, report they intend to resolve differences and produce a final bill as early as this month.
Rayne Pegg, California Farm Bureau Federation Federal Policy Division manager, said farmers and ranchers remain hopeful the conferees can work in a bipartisan manner and reach an agreement on a new farm bill—and soon.
"The agriculture committee chairs in both chambers appear to be very close to finalizing a deal," Pegg said. "We could have a farm bill signed into law this month."
American Farm Bureau chief economist Bob Young said farmers and ranchers are hopeful that Congress gets more done this year than was accomplished in 2013.
"I'm optimistic that they're going to be able to get the farm bill done in the first few weeks of the year," Young said. "If they don't, we're going to have to have other legislative action to go back and deal with the dairy issue all over again and, you know, why do we need to do that one more time? Let's just get the bill done and move forward."
Before adjourning in late December when the existing farm bill was set to expire, the House approved an extension of the 2008 Farm Bill until Jan. 31. Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., who chairs the House Agriculture Committee, noted at the time that the extension of the existing farm bill was necessary to avoid increases in dairy prices when the dairy provisions would have expired at the end of the year. But the Senate did not act before the holiday break, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack indicated he did not intend to implement the permanent-law provisions on Jan. 1.
Reports indicate the House and Senate have reached agreement on some of the most contentious issues, including cuts to nutrition and changes to national dairy policy, Pegg said.
Many programs important to California farmers and ranchers have already been included in both versions of the bill, she said, adding that CFBF would like the conference committee to produce a final bill that also takes action on the following provisions or programs:
- Remove the "King amendment" by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, which would put California egg producers in particular at a disadvantage. Under the amendment, stricter standards for egg production approved by California voters would still apply to in-state producers, but not to out-of-state producers who sell eggs in California.
- Extend dedicated air-quality funding of $37.5 million for projects that meet federal, state and local air quality regulations, as contained in the Senate bill.
- Provide funding for the National Animal Health Laboratory Network at $15 million, as contained in both the House and Senate bills.
- Provide increased, mandatory funding for specialty crop programs as contained in the House bill: specialty crop block grants, plant pest and disease programs, and the Specialty Crop Research Initiative.
In a letter to congressional leaders, Gov. Jerry Brown emphasized the importance of a comprehensive farm bill that reauthorizes programs important to farmers, ranchers and users of federal food and nutrition programs. In addition, he urged members of Congress to oppose inclusion of the King amendment into the final bill.
"The King amendment seeks to prevent states from exercising their traditional authorities over a broad range of agricultural production and manufacturing processes, from food safety and animal health, to invasive pests and quality standards," Brown wrote.
While the farm bill appears to be on its way to final approval early in the year, immigration reform remains more problematic.
Bryan Little, CFBF director of labor affairs and chief operating officer of the Farm Employers Labor Service, noted there has been speculation that Congress could move legislation to improve the nation's broken immigration system.
"Congressional leaders are believed to be weighing movement on immigration reform legislation early in the year. This would be beneficial to agriculture because the H-2A program is difficult to use and the Adverse Effect Wage Rate just went up to $11.01 an hour," Little said.
The key to whether movement will happen this year, he said, depends on the outcome of primary elections.
"A key indicator will be how many incumbents attract anti-immigration opponents in their primaries," Little said. "The question is whether leaders can amass enough support to pass meaningful immigration reform before the election season overshadows everything."
Back on California farms and ranches, producers may be able to hire enough employees to get by during the upcoming growing season, Little said, but there will not be an overabundance of available employees; see related story. That trend is likely to continue until the immigration issue is resolved, he said.
"California farmers and ranchers should continue to press their members of Congress about the need for immigration reform," Little said. "We have been very forthright over the years about our desire to work with policymakers to create a legal, adequate workforce for farms and ranches."
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)