Perdue likely to face questions about farm bill

Source: Marc Heller, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue faces his first congressional hearings of the year this week, as lawmakers press for timely implementation of the 2018 farm bill.

Perdue is set to testify before the House and Senate Agriculture committees, where he’s expected to focus on farm bill implementation and the state of the farm economy. He will likely face questions about the Trump administration’s moves on agricultural trade with China, Mexico and Canada.

The Senate hearing focuses on the farm bill, which President Trump signed into law in December. The updated farm law, which lasts five years, revamps some conservation programs while preserving the basic farm safety net, including subsidized crop insurance.

Outlays in the farm bill total $428 billion over five years, an increase of about $400 million annually compared to the 2014 farm bill.

Perdue could face questions about changes to the conservation programs, including how the department plans to implement new benefits for soil health and water quality. The 2018 law preserved conservation programs from the 2014 version, although it calls for cuts to the Conservation Stewardship Program after 2024.

Lawmakers may also ask how the partial government shutdown affected implementation. Some USDA agencies were more affected than others; officials have said the Natural Resources Conservation Service was able to run on previously appropriated funds for a period of time, allowing more work on the farm bill.

Deputy Agriculture Secretary Stephen Censky praised the legislation at USDA’s annual outlook conference Thursday. He said the department is “focused 100 percent” on implementing the bill “just as quickly as possible.”

The department will soon announce a timeline, including listening sessions with stakeholders and producers, Censky said. The first session is set for tomorrow at USDA headquarters, he said.

The House Agriculture Committee, newly led by Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), billed its hearing as a session on the state of the farm economy. That’s a troubling picture for many farmers, especially in the dairy industry, as farm incomes have been falling, economists say. Bankruptcies feed consolidation that makes for fewer, and larger, farms, which poses environmental challenges.

Commodity prices, adjusted for inflation, are at the lowest level in decades for some crops, USDA Chief Economist Robert Johansson told attendees at the outlook conference.

On the other hand, he said, the department predicts prices will climb slightly this year for corn — critical for ethanol as well as livestock feed — and for soybeans.

Perdue may be asked, as well, to offer hints on the administration’s forthcoming budget request for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, which — if it follows last year’s model — could propose cuts to many USDA programs. The administration has signaled that the plan will come out in two phases in March.