U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), a longtime member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, today discussed the challenges currently facing America’s agriculture economy. There are several ways Congress and the president can help spur growth in that sector, like by negotiating bilateral trade agreements, repealing harmful and burdensome regulations, and reforming the tax code.
Another way Congress can work to improve the agriculture economy is by creating new and revising existing federal farm programs that will be authorized under the next farm bill.
Earlier this year, Thune announced that he would introduce incremental farm bill proposals that will cover several titles of the overall farm bill. Thune has already introduced the Soil Health and Income Protection Program, a new voluntary income protection program for farmers that is designed for today’s production agriculture and soil health needs. He’s also introduced multiple proposals that would increase the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acreage cap, add cost-saving multiple use options to CRP management, and create new common-sense management options for other easement programs.
Thune’s remarks (as prepared for delivery):
“Mr. President, the past eight years have been tough on Americans.
“Despite the fact that the recession officially ended in June 2009, the economy never really rebounded.
“President Obama presided over the weakest economic recovery in 60 years.
“His presidency was characterized by poor economic growth, a dearth of jobs and opportunities, and almost nonexistent wage increases.
“In 2016, the economy grew at a dismal 1.6 percent – far below the level of growth displayed by a healthy economy.
“And the GDP report for the first quarter of this year underscored the need to implement the kind of pro-growth policies that were lacking during the Obama years.
“Republicans in Congress and the White House have already acted to repeal a number of burdensome Obama regulations that were foisted onto the American people near the end of the Obama presidency.
“And we plan to keep up our efforts.
“Getting rid of unnecessary regulations will go a long way toward freeing up businesses to grow and create jobs and putting more money in Americans’ pockets.
“Of course, repealing burdensome regulations is just one of the things we need to get our economy healthy again.
“Fixing our broken tax code is another.
“As a member of the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee, I’ll be introducing tax reform legislation in the near future targeted primarily for Main Street businesses that pay tax at the individual rate.
“I’m looking forward to working on comprehensive tax reform with Chairman Hatch and the rest of my colleagues on the Finance Committee as we move forward this year.
“It’s critical that pass-through businesses, which are the main focus of my bill, are not left behind in this effort.
“But today, Mr. President, I want to talk about spurring growth in a specific sector of our economy – one that is very important to my state.
“And that’s the agriculture sector.
“Like so many other Americans, farmers and ranchers in South Dakota and across the country have had a rough time of it over the past few years.
“Market prices for farm and ranch products have been on a steady decline since 2013.
“And net farm income has dropped substantially as a result.
“Worse, there’s little expectation that prices will improve over the next few years, which means farmers and ranchers’ incomes are likely to continue to decrease.
“Farmers are struggling to repay their debts.
“Between 2014 and 2016, the delinquency rate on farm non-real-estate loans more than doubled.
“Delinquencies on farm real-estate loans rose from $1.18 billion in 2014 to $1.66 billion in 2016.
“While these numbers are not at all-time highs, the increases are disturbing, and show no signs of reversing anytime soon.
“Mr. President, farming and ranching are not just careers in South Dakota.
“They are a way of life, one that connects communities and families to the land and one generation to the next.
“Nearly 3,000 South Dakota farm families have been honored as operating century farms – meaning the same family has operated at least 80 acres for 100 years or more.
“But in today’s weak agriculture economy, Mr. President, many families are afraid that they will be the ones to lose the farm or ranch that has been in their family for generations.
“And that would be a loss not just for them but for our country.
“Few of us understand the sacrifices that go into this way of life.
“When we pick up a gallon of milk or a steak at the grocery store, we don’t think of the farmer who rose long before the sun and finished his day long after the sun set.
“Our country is made stronger by the hard work, fierce dedication, and unconquerable spirit of America’s farmers.
“And we need to make a concerted effort to help farmers meet the challenges they’re facing right now, so that America can continue to help feed the world and Americans can continue to have access to the homegrown products they depend on.
“So how do we do that, Mr. President?
“One thing we can do that would immediately improve agricultural prices would be to quickly negotiate new bilateral trade agreements.
“Agriculture is heavily dependent on trade, and in today’s economic climate, we cannot afford to have our agriculture exports restricted by inadequate trade policies.
“U.S. farmers have lost ground internationally.
“Our current share of the global grain market is just 30 percent, down from 65 percent in the mid-1970s.
“We need to take steps to level the playing field for American farmers and ranchers so that they can be more competitive internationally.
“I’ve encouraged the president to start by negotiating a bilateral trade agreement with Japan.
“Japan is one of our most important trading partners, but U.S. farmers and ranchers too often face hefty tariffs on the products they sell in Japan.
“U.S. negotiators made important progress toward reducing these barriers during the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations.
“We need to build on the work they did and negotiate a bilateral agreement with Japan as soon as possible.
“This would benefit a wide variety of U.S. producers, including South Dakota beef producers, who currently face a massive 38.5 percent tariff on the beef they sell in Japan.
“Mr. President, trade agreements would help tremendously, but there’s more we need to do to ensure the long-term sustainability of production agriculture in the United States.
“Every five years, Congress has the opportunity to reset federal farm policy when it passes the farm bill.
“The current farm bill expires in 2018, and it’s not too early to start the drafting process for the next bill.
“I served on the Agriculture Committee in the House and now serve on the Senate Agriculture Committee under the strong leadership of my friend from Kansas, Chairman Pat Roberts.
“I will be working on my fourth farm bill, and I take this responsibility very seriously.
“I spend a lot of time talking to farmers and ranchers while I’m back home in South Dakota, and I’ve been developing legislation based on the feedback they give me about federal programs.
“I’ve already introduced two key proposals that I hope will be part of the final farm bill we pass next year, and I will be introducing several more farm bill legislative proposals this year.
“All farmers are familiar with the Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, which provides incentives for farmers to take environmentally sensitive land out of production for 10 to 15 years.
“But a lot of farmers have told me that they don’t want to retire portions of their land for a decade or more.
“To address this, I am proposing a new program that would reduce operating costs by providing a modest rental payment and increasing crop insurance premium discounts.
“The program I’m proposing – the Soil Health and Income Protection Program – would provide a new, short-term option for farmers that would allow them to take their worst-performing cropland out of production for three to five years, instead of the 10 to 15 required by CRP rules.
“This program would result in improved soil health and reduced crop insurance costs and provide beneficial areas for wildlife, while improving the bottom line for participating farms.
“The other key proposal I’ve introduced would make a number of revisions and management improvements to CRP and other U.S. Department of Agriculture easement programs.
“CRP plays a very significant role in South Dakota’s economy, as it provides a major portion of the habitat for the Chinese ringneck pheasant, which brings more than $250 million each year to my state’s rural areas, towns, and cities.
“Unfortunately, farmers have spent years frustrated by some of the ways the Department of Agriculture has managed this program.
“We need to make sure that federal farm programs don’t discourage farmers and ranchers from participating – especially in times like these when these programs are sorely needed to provide valuable safety net assistance and help protect soil and water.
“My conservation program legislation addresses major concerns farmers have with CRP and other USDA conservation programs by allowing common-sense use and management of land enrolled in these programs, which improves these programs for farmers and saves taxpayers money.
“My legislation also expands the CRP acreage cap by 25 percent and uses historical acreage averages to make sure CRP will be available in states that have used it and need it the most.
“Above all, the acres enrolled in CRP and other easement programs must be effectively used and managed to maximize their usefulness and effectiveness for land and water conservation and wildlife, and I will work to make that happen.
“In addition, both my legislative proposals contain provisions to provide additional support to young, beginning, and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, as well as to military veterans.
“We need to ensure that young and beginning farmers and ranchers and others have opportunities to succeed, especially now when even seasoned farmers are struggling.
“Mr. President, along with trade agreements and the farm bill, there are other things we can do to help farmers and ranchers, and small businesses.
“This year, we plan to take up major reform of our broken, bloated tax code.
“Making sure that we consider the needs of farmers and ranchers during this debate will be one of my priorities.
“We can also help farmers and ranchers by removing burdensome government regulations that do little to help the environment but that force farmers to spend untold hours and dollars on compliance.
“One example of this kind of burdensome regulation is the so-called Waters of the United States rule.
“This EPA regulation improperly used the Clean Water Act to justify expanding the EPA’s regulatory authority to waters like small wetlands, creeks, stock ponds, and ditches.
“The rule specifically targeted the Prairie Pothole Region, which covers five states including nearly all of eastern South Dakota.
“I am grateful that the president chose to protect farmers and ranchers by announcing a review of this rule in February of this year.
“We could further support American farmers by removing yet another unnecessary regulatory hurdle, the Reid Vapor Pressure regulation that restricts the sale of E15 fuel during the summer driving season.
“Providing a waiver for E15, as enjoyed by other fuels, is a bipartisan, no-cost way to roll back regulation and grant consumers real choice at the pumps, as well as help our farmers.
“Mr. President, our nation, and the world, depend on our farmers and ranchers.
“We need to make sure that they can sustain their operations and continue to efficiently feed America and the world.
“I look forward to continuing our work on tax, trade, regulatory, and farm bill policies that support farmers and ranchers in South Dakota and throughout our country.”