As Congress works to hammer out a new Farm Bill, the Land O’Lakes, Inc. board of directors was in Washington, D.C., last month to share the story of modern agriculture and champion the interests of the cooperative’s farmer and retail-owners.
Board members were officially there for one of the six meetings they conduct each year. But, the fly-in event -- from April 16-19 -- also served a critical dual purpose: Building relationships on Capitol Hill, the White House and elsewhere in the nation’s capital. A primary focus of those efforts is the new Farm Bill, the multi-year law that sets the tone for agricultural and food policy for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
“Emails are good, phone calls are better, personal visits even better yet,” says Pete Kappelman, chairman of the Land O’Lakes Board of Directors, on efforts by Land O’Lakes member-owners to advocate and educate lawmakers about their industry. “We have a chance to shape public policy. You can only do that through participating.”
The trip’s timing couldn’t have been more fortuitous, as the House Agriculture Committee were in the process of debating and -- in a party-line vote -- ultimately approved its version of the Farm Bill on April 18. The bill heads to the House for a full vote as early as May 14, while the debate on the Senate’s version could start in the coming weeks.
Because it’s renewed about every five years, the Farm Bill provides a predictable opportunity for policymakers to address agricultural and food issues. Titles in the last bill, approved in 2014 and expiring this year, encompassed farm commodity price and income supports, agricultural conservation, farm credit, trade, research, rural development, bioenergy, foreign food aid, and domestic nutrition assistance.
Kappelman and fellow board member Stan Stark deemed the trip a success. They think the board was successful in conveying Land O'Lakes’ viewpoints on the Farm Bill and other issues -- immigration reform and trade -- to legislators or their staffs.
Land of O’Lakes advocates for federal polices in the Farm Bill that help producers manage the volatility inherent in agricultural production, promoting an economically healthy and competitive U.S. agricultural sector. The cooperative also stresses that American farmers, ranchers and local ag retailers must have the certainty of the five-year bill.
Board of directors are elected from the membership base, split between dairy and ag members. Kappelman co-owns Meadow Brook Dairy Farms in Wisconsin; Stark is co-op president for Alliance Ag and Grain LLC in Kansas.
“I think they heard us,” Kappelman says. “It’s important that the farmer’s story gets told.”
Stark, who has been on the board for six years, says the message Land O'Lakes brings to Washington is simple: Don't forget the values of rural America.
“Every time we go there, we see how much less representation there is for agriculture and the rural areas we live in,” Stark says. “It's becoming more urban all the time. Our group and ones like us need to constantly be telling them why it's important to protect the Farm Bill status, making sure we maintain a safety net for our producers.”
The certainty of having the five-year Farm Bill in place is crucial. But, from Kappelman’s perspective, so is building markets through trade.
“No one should be farming in the hopes that crop insurance pays out or that margin protection pays out,” says Kappelman, in his 23rd and final year on the board. “We should be farming because we have the opportunity to feed the world. Foreign relations and trade are more important than anything because that’s the upside. But, when we are in a downswing, it’s important to have that safety net.”
Besides making many office visits to lawmakers, the board of directors:
Chatted with Gregg Doud, the chief agricultural negotiator in the Office of the United States Trade Representative.
Attended a reception at the South African Embassy with that country’s U.S. Ambassador Mninwa Johannes Mahlangu. As part of Land O’Lakes accelerated growth in its international business, Villa Crop Protection of South Africa was its first commercial investment in Africa.
And met at the White House with Ray Starling, special assistant to the president for agriculture, agriculture trade, and food assistance, and Jamie Clover Adams, an adviser in the office of U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.
Kappelman was impressed by the White House visit, stressing the Trump administration has many people with business experience working within the USDA
“As an elected representative of farmers, it’s my job to go out to Washington and communicate with all the administrations,” he says. “I’ve been doing this back into the days of (former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush). But this one is just a little easier to communicate with because they’re approaching the world through a business aspect.”
The House and Senate Agriculture Committees have worked separately to draft legislation for the Farm Bill.
There were reforms in last month’s House Agriculture Committee draft bill proposed to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which provides food assistance to low-income families. House Democrats do not support it.
Kappelman says some people think Title 1 -- the commodities part of the bill such as wheat, corn, cotton, dairy, etc. -- should be separated from the nutrition program part (Title 4). He disagrees.
Land O’Lakes urges Congress to support a responsive safety net, together with adequate funding, that incorporates improved, comprehensive risk management tools, including Title 1 and crop insurance, for producers and their cooperatives. Land O’Lakes does not take a position on nutrition programs, but it is important to watch because these provisions could decide whether the entire Farm Bill passes promptly.
“What does SNAP have to do with Title 1 and commodities programs and crop insurance?” Kappelman asks. “Well, producing food and feeding people are connected. It’s our big chance to tell the rest of our country our story, the farmer’s story. The agriculture story. Because of that connection.”
That will be a political challenge, he admits.
“Naturally, the Democratic side is against any changes to the feeding program,” he says. “The Republican side, the far right, wants to see crop insurance and commodity programs cut. I think the big sensible middle realizes corrections are possible on both sides.”
The Senate is pushing to introduce its Farm Bill language this month. Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) have been determined to pass a bill in a bipartisan fashion.
The general outlook of passing the bill in 2018 remains uncertain.
Stark is not sure what exactly will happen. “The reconciliation of the two bills once it gets out of both sides of Congress is always going to be a challenge, but I guess I’m optimistic on the House side that something is going to come out of it,” he says.
If both the House and Senate can pass legislation, the bills will go to a conference committee. If the conference committee can reach an agreement between the House and Senate versions, the Farm Bill goes back to them for a final vote.
One thing that is certain, Land O’Lakes will be involved every step of the way, sharing the story of agriculture and working to help pass a bill that supports the interests of our network of farmer and retail owners. We will keep you informed as the bill moves along the legislative process, including opportunities for you to support the bill through legislative advocacy. You may also contact the Land O’Lakes Government Relations team with any immediate question or for additional Information.