2008: A Positive Outlook
Bruce I. Knight, Under Secretary for
I’m delighted to join you today to talk about the path ahead for U.S. agriculture in 2008. It looks like a good year ahead, but we’ll certainly see some changes.
Next Farm Bill
I want to focus today primarily on the next farm bill—and the stake that cattlemen from Alabama have in it. I know we’re all eager to see this one completed and signed. But, as you know, farm bills are never easy, and Congress will go down to the wire with the toughest decisions.
This is the fifth farm bill I’ve worked on. From my perspective, the clear takeaway is that farm bills unfortunately tend to be written not based on the future, but on the past. And the bills before us now hark back to the dim, distant past, rather than focusing on a promising future. That’s a mistake!
We’ve experienced some incredible changes in the U.S. economy over the past year—$100 a barrel oil coupled with a historically weak dollar and exploding farm exports. In 2007, ag exports spiked to $82 billion and are anticipated to increase another 11 percent to $91 billion this year.
We’ve got higher prices for both grains and meats, but a cheaper dollar—and that’s spurring greater sales on the international market. U.S. beef and veal exports rose 25 percent last year, and we’re anticipating an increase of nearly 20 percent in 2008. We’re continuing to work to open and expand markets around the globe.
As we enter 2008, the bottom line for cattlemen, and almost all American farmers and ranchers, is looking good. Net cash farm income is estimated to be up more than $18 billion—to $85.7 billion next July. Any way you look at it, these are good times for many in production agriculture.
Unfortunately, the farm bills that Congress has written don’t take these market changes into account. We need a farm bill that is forward leaning—a farm bill that sets us on the right path for the next five years—not one suited for three decades ago. And President Bush is eager to sign a farm bill—but it has to be a good bill.
What’s Wrong with the Current Bills
Right now, what we have are two bills that fall far, far short of ideal. In fact, we believe both the Senate and the House bills are fundamentally flawed.
Neither takes a forward-looking view. Neither provides the kind of reforms we need. Neither responds effectively to what more than 4,000 farmers across the country told us they wanted. The Administration will NOT support a bill that fails to reform programs, makes a mockery of the budget process and increases taxes.
During the past three months, I’ve spoken to between 5 and 7 thousand farmers and ranchers. There’s an underlying concern and nervousness they share about the bills that are before us—particularly increasing taxes to pay for a farm bill.
Historically, the farm bill uses offsets to fund new priorities, not taxes on other industries. And with record farm incomes, and a declining national economy, it doesn’t make sense to do it today.
I’m sure not too long ago, many of you were making end-of-year purchase decisions and considering how to manage your tax liability. You may be thinking that a farm bill that puts taxes on others, but brings benefits to farmers, is okay. But over time, this approach will erode broad support for farm programs, and at the rate the Senate is going, your turn will come. And ultimately we all lose.
Today we have high farm incomes and relatively low debt. If we can’t help agriculture become more market-driven and competitive now, we have to ask if there will ever be a time. For me the answer is clear: Now is the right time to make these changes!
I’m also concerned—and you should be as well—that with virtually every major piece of legislation the Congress sought to enact last year, attempts were made to include new taxes. In every case, the President successfully prevented enactment of those taxes. And in the State of the Union address last Monday, he pledged to continue vetoing bills that included new taxes.
We need a farm bill that doesn’t raise new taxes, but goes to the core of what farmers and ranchers want—a bill that strengthens the agricultural safety net and funds priorities without increasing taxes or relying on questionable bookkeeping.
Instead, the Senate bill, for example, would cost $37 billion more than the USDA proposal. Further, that cost is covered through $22 billion in savings gimmicks and $15 billion in tax increases on other industries. In fact, that $22 billion would actually increase a couple billion more, based on the conference report language.
We need to move away from illusions and gimmicks. We can’t have the true cost of the farm bill hidden by shifting payments forward or pretending that commitments to food stamps or disaster aid will simply disappear in the future.
I’m also very concerned that neither of these bills really improves the safety net for producers. So, we would find ourselves continuing to pay farmers the most when they need it the least.
The real help is needed when crops are lost due to disaster. And the best way to provide the help farmers really need is with a revenue-based counter-cyclical program.
Another problem is that neither bill establishes effective payment limits. It’s time to graduate from farm subsidies those who are among the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans—those whose adjusted gross income—after expenses and depreciation—is $200,000 or more. This provision proposed by the Administration would affect about 38,000 people—few of which I believe are farmers and ranchers—and save $1.5 billion.
In addition, this time of prosperity is NOT the time to raise loan rates for 16 of 27 commodities and target prices for 18 of 22 commodities as the Senate bill would do. That is trade distorting and will lead to complaints from our WTO trading partners. We will pay a heavy price in the international arena for this.
We’re already under scrutiny for provisions in the current farm bill. Those involved in production agriculture don’t want to find themselves in the position of benefiting today from a farm bill that leads to reduced exports and lower incomes in the future. We need to increase market orientation in the next farm bill, and farmers will profit accordingly.
Let me touch briefly on a couple of issues in the Livestock Title of the farm bill.
Instead, it would
It would make a lot of lawyers rich, while the packers reorganize—or worse yet, move to Canada or Mexico, Argentina or Brazil.
Let me shift to another livestock provision: the creation of a Special Counsel for Agricultural Competition. This sets up a Washington, D.C., classic—a solution in search of a problem.
The Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission are responsible for taking action against anti-competitive activity in U.S. business, and furthermore, GIPSA currently oversees livestock sales to take action when needed.
Adding a Special Counsel would simply bill American taxpayers again for work USDA already does every day. This provision in the farm bill would
Don’t be lured by a competition title designed more to appeal to folks in coffee shops than to actually meet your needs.
Let me turn now to the National Animal Identification System. NAIS has been—and will continue to be—one of USDA’s top priorities. I’m sure that our new Secretary, Ed Schafer from North Dakota, understands very well the value of animal ID.
I want to make clear that NAIS is not so much something new as it is an updated, modernized and integrated approach to animal identification and tracing. Our ultimate goal is to have data in our hands within 48 hours of an incident.
The first step for NAIS is to get farmers and ranchers to register their premises. Today, we have about 445,000 premises registered nationwide out of an estimated 1.4 million.
Only 7,028 of those premises are in Alabama—that’s not even 20 percent of the estimated 35,000-plus premises here. Alabama has a long way to go to catch up, and given the BSE scare of a few years ago…I’d like to see those of you in this room today at the forefront of this effort.
Late last year APHIS signed an agreement with the National Cattlemen’s Foundation to increase premises registrations—primarily through outreach and education efforts of NCBA’s Producer Education Committee and the Beef Quality Assurance program. The goal is to add just over 70,000 new premise registrations by the end of this year.
Registering your premises is free, and it’s easy. It’s about protecting your herd health. It’s about safeguarding your neighbors. It’s the right thing to do. I’ve done it for my herd—and so should you.
Let me tell you briefly what’s happening on Country of Origin Labeling. The COOL requirements currently on the books call for implementation of labeling for most commodities on September 30, 2008. Labeling requirements for fish and shellfish have been in effect since April 2005.
The Administration is on record as being concerned about the burden imposed by COOL, but we are also committed to implementing the requirements in a fair and balanced manner with the least possible cost and the lowest possible burden on everyone in the production chain.
COOL is a major challenge in our effort to maintain positive relationships with our trading partners and avoid possible retaliation from those who might view COOL as protectionist or discriminatory.
Now, both the House and Senate versions of the farm bill include a modification that would label products as domestic, foreign or may be of mixed or multiple origins—and other changes as well. In any case, we need prompt completion of the farm bill to stay on schedule for COOL. An extension would undermine our efforts.
To wrap things up, I truly believe we’re at a crossroads for American agriculture. We’re in the midst of bumper harvests, record-breaking exports, the highest farm income ever, and the lowest debt-to-asset ratio in 45 years.
What more could you want?
I’d say simply, more of the same. To get that, we need a good, forward-looking farm bill that will continue that prosperity in the years ahead—a bill that reforms our farm programs to promote market orientation and expansion.
We need an effective safety net for farmers. And we need to cut down on the goodies for those who’ve succeeded and, based on their adjusted gross income, rank among the top 2 percent of Americans.
We need to support specialty crops. And we need to bolster conservation, strengthen rural development and expand research on renewable energy.