Farm Bureau members at several stages of their farming careers — ranging from beginning farmers to those near retirement —delivered a unified message on several national policy issues last week in Washington, D.C.
Do no harm to U.S. trade deals.
Protect crop insurance.
Curb regulatory overreaches.
Simplify the tax code, and reduce effective tax rates.
Those were among the key messages delivered by 45 Farm Bureau members participating in the Iowa Farm Bureau’s annual July policy trip to the nation’s capital. Over four days in Washington, the group met with all four of Iowa’s U.S. House members, Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, and several high-ranking U.S. Department of Agriculture and trade officials.
Larry Jepsen, a Jackson County Farm Bureau member, said it’s important for lawmakers to protect farmers’ interests as the Trump administration moves to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and other trade deals.
"We need you to support trade. One in five Iowa jobs is dependent on trade," Jepsen told Iowa 1st District Rep. Rod Blum, a message he later repeated in meetings with Grassley and Ernst. "We can produce a lot of corn and soybeans. We export 25 percent of our corn. If we don’t increase trade, we’ll be building a lot of bins."
U.S. ag exports to Canada and Mexico have quadrupled since the passage of NAFTA, making it an overwhelming success for U.S. farmers. Ag industry groups have identified potential issues that could be improved with Canada, including dairy and poultry policies, but have few complaints about their trading relationship with Mexico.
"That’s going to be a fine line to walk," said IFBF Vice President Joe Heinrich. "When (Trump) talks about making trade great again, make sure he knows it has been great for agriculture."
Blum said he believes the president will rely on advice from Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and other experts on agricultural trade issues.
"Secretary Perdue gets it," Congressman Blum said.
As Congress undertakes comprehensive tax reform, farmers expressed concern over the proposed loss of the deduction for business interest expenses.
"Interest is a cost of production. It’s no different than putting fuel in my combine," said Nick Podhajsky, IFBF District 6 director.
Farmers asked lawmakers to also continue important provisions like stepped-up basis, preserving cash accounting and maintaining like-kind exchanges.
"We want to make sure that the tools we have now that are working remain available," said Darren Stadtmueller, a Farm Bureau member from Jones County.
Grassley noted that Congress hasn’t overhauled the tax system since the 1980s, and if it doesn’t get it done this year, "it’ll be another 30 years." The effort also presents an opportunity for Congress to finally end the estate tax, said Ida County Farm Bureau President Kyle Bennett.
"Taxation has huge impacts on farm families, especially the estate tax, as I’ve found out as we work through my father’s estate," he said. "As we know, farmers are aging, and taxation is a critical issue that many families face as they look to transition the farm to the next generation."
Farm Bureau members also encouraged Congress to finish its plan to reform the federal rule-making process in order to provide more stakeholder input and curb regulatory overreaches.
"We’ve got a president that’s ready to make changes, so we need to get that done," said Mark Nelson, who farms in Woodbury County with his dad.
Farm bill concerns
Members also told lawmakers which provisions they’d like to see changed in the new farm bill.
Several members identified concerns with the formula used to set Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) rates, saying it’s competing with farmers by paying above-market rates on land that’s not environmentally sensitive.
"We moved back to my dad’s operation hoping to pick up some CRP ground, but we couldn’t even touch what the CRP payment was," said Tyler Wynthein of Fayette County. "It’s acting more like a retirement program for (landowners)."
The program is also crowding out environmentally-sensitive land by enrolling whole farms, he said. Nick Thorson of Mitchell County said one of his relatives recently lost 80 acres of ground from a landlord who enrolled the parcel into CRP at $75 per acre above the county's average cash-rental rate.
The dairy Margin Protection Program also needs revisions, said Jessica Tekippe, who is part of a 65-cow dairy herd with her husband and in-laws.
"The program isn’t working," she said. "Not that we’re expecting any huge payments, but so far (dairy farmers have) paid in about $10 to every $1 we get out. We’re also locked into it for the life of the farm bill. You can’t get out of it to use some other safety net program like Livestock Gross Margin insurance."
Crop insurance is one farm bill program that is working, farmers said, urging lawmakers to protect the program from proposed cuts.
"The local lending institutions are basically requiring everybody to have crop insurance," said Fremont County Farm Bureau member Charlie Zanker. "They won’t lend you a dime if you don’t have crop insurance."
Health insurance is another major concern for farmers, Podhajsky noted. He is among some 72,000 Iowans who will lose health insurance on Jan. 1 unless Congress takes action.
"Washington has got to do something, and it’s got to be done quickly," he said.