After touring the Ag Processing Inc. soybean processing plant east of Hastings, including the recent expansion that opened in fall 2016, U.S. Sens Deb Fischer and Pat Roberts spoke Friday about efforts in Washington to ensure there is a strong export market for U.S. agricultural products.
Fischer, R-Neb., hosted Roberts, R-Kan., who is Senate Agriculture Committee chairman, in Nebraska on Friday. Roberts joined Fischer and Nebraska agriculture stakeholders for a Farm Bill roundtable discussion in Grand Island as well as a tour of the Hastings AGP plant in Hastings.
The senators met with the media after the AGP tour.
“It’s very impressive,” Fischer said of the AGP plant. “Hastings and the state of Nebraska is fortunate to have AGP here.”
“The most important thing is that all of this goes right back to a farmer-owned cooperative,” Roberts added. “So this is to the benefit of every farmer involved. It is quite a facility. If you look at the capability and the different things they are producing, different products, all of which can be exported, and they are doing that regardless of the trade policy.”
As chairman of the Senate Ag Committee, Roberts is overseeing efforts to pass a new Farm Bill. The current Farm Bill, which was passed in 2014, expires Sept. 30.
Fischer, whose family ranches in Cherry County, also is a member of the Ag Committee.
“Goodness knows, I hope, that we can reach a conclusion with the new farm bill,” Roberts said. “The key to that is to understand certainty and predictability are the two top issues. You go down the list of what we’re doing and the support for whatever we’re talking about, I can’t even remember now how many states I’ve been to but we’ve had nine hearings in Washington. On every title of the Farm Bill, the No. 1 issue in farm country is crop insurance. That’s number one. We’ll have a little tussle on that with people who have their own ideas on reform. We want to save crop insurance, and we would like to improve it.”
Legislators want to address some of the problems in the Agricultural Risk Coverage program and provide availability of the Price Loss Coverage program.
“We need to make sure farmers have a choice between ARC and PLC,” Roberts said. “At the time when prices were high, the ARC program looked better. Now prices are low. I think quite a few farmers are going to think about the PLC program. You don’t want to do anything in any region that is at the expense of another region. We really have to have a team effort. The good news is the Senate Ag Committee is probably the least partisan committee in Congress.”
Work on the 2018 Farm Bill has been a bipartisan effort, Roberts said, as he and ranking Democratic Ag Committee Member Debbie Stabenow of Michigan have led the endeavor.
“It’s not our first rodeo,” he said. “We were successful with the Farm Bill some years ago. We are trying very hard to do the same thing again. I know everybody wants to talk about timing. We’re not in a race with the House. We want to get it right, and we want to get it so that we have the very best opportunity to get over 60 votes. We know where our differences are and where we have to come together. That dreaded word ‘compromise.’ Hopefully this month will be the deciding month to get a mark before the committee. We have assurance from both leaders, (Democratic) Sen. Schumer and our (Republican) leader Mitch McConnell, that we will get floor time. We have the avenue. The chore now is to bring everybody together. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Unlike when recent past farm bills were being developed, the ag economy is shaky as work is under way on the 2018 version.
“This is not where we were when the previous Farm Bill was written,” Roberts said. “We’re in a very rough patch. Sen. Fischer and I have been trying to emphasize that to the administration in regard to trade. We are in a really rough patch four years in a row with prices below the cost of production. The one crop we saw in Kansas, at least, and I think the same is true in Nebraska, was sorghum. Sorghum was the first one hit on trade retaliation from China with regards to washing machines and solar panels. We need to avoid a trade war at all costs. We need to sell our product and to do it hopefully we see a little change of heart with the administration, I know they’re working very hard.”
He believes updates to the North American Free Trade Agreement are close to completion.
“I hope we get a breakthrough, especially with Mexico,” he said. “Kansas wheat should be selling right now in Mexico. It’s not. They’re buying their wheat from Argentina and their corn from Brazil. We don’t want to lose our guarantee that we are a reliable supplier, and we’re in danger of doing that. I’m very hopeful the administration can see that, we can get a NAFTA resolution.”
Roberts is optimistic also about President Donald Trump’s announcement in April that he wants to look again at the Trans Pacific Partnership, from which Trump earlier decided to withdraw the United States.
“That would be a very good thing,” Roberts said.
Fischer said that above all else, U.S. producers want opportunities.
“I think we’re united as ag state senators to continue to advocate to the president, to push the president and give him more information about the importance of those markets to our producers, to our states,” Fischer said. “Ag’s the economic engine in the state of Nebraska. We can’t ever forget that. So, to continue to talk to the president about the need to get some certainty with NAFTA, especially, and make sure we have those markets there, Sen. Roberts and I, were with a group with the president, we talked to him about the importance of developing new opportunities, new markets. We don’t want to see subsidies for ag producers. They don’t want to see that, either. What they want to see are opportunities to be able to have the export markets we currently have but also grow new ones. That’s why I think it’s so important we continue to talk to the president and urge him to get some deals made, get them settled and make sure they’re positive for our states and get forward on this farm bill, too.
“I have a sense of urgency there. The chairman, he’s going to lead us through battle in order to get that farm bill done, and we’re going to get it done. I don’t want to wait until September, and I know Sen. Roberts doesn’t, either. We want to get this marked up in committee. It would be nice to get it done before August recess.”