Republican Congressman James Comer of Kentucky's First District says being one of the only farmers in Congress and being a former state agriculture commissioner made him a frontrunner to serve on the conference committee that will negotiate the final version of the Farm Bill.
The sweeping, $867 billion bill covers farm and food policy legislation for five years, offers a safety net for farmers and determines the Supplemental Nutrition Program - or SNAP benefits, formerly known as food stamps. The House version included controversial work requirements for SNAP. The Senate version did not include those requirements. The current Farm Bill expires on September 30.
How Kentucky Could Stand To Benefit
"My whole life's been about agriculture," Congressman Comer said. "From 4-H and FFA days through ag in college, through being a full-time farmer, and then a state representative and Commissioner of Agriculture, I feel like I've been on every angle of ag policy and look forward to shape the ag policy over the next five years with the Farm Bill." As congressman, Comer has discussed farm issues at various town hall meetings around the district, including a Kentucky Farm Bureau listening session in Hopkinsville in April 2017.
The bill under consideration has aspects that are unique to Kentucky, Comer said, noting a tobacco crop insurance program. He said he wants the bill to include language that helps the bourbon industry, as well, stating that most of central Kentucky's corn is going to distilleries and tariffs on bourbon could have a detrimental effect on farmers.
Comer is vying for new language to help the burgeoning hemp industry, which he said also stands to benefit Kentucky. Comer and state ag leaders have invested a considerable amount of resources in getting the crop in the ground and off of a controlled substance list. "We have language in there that I hope to keep in the final version of the farm bill that will address the concerns we have from the industrial hemp standpoint in Kentucky and help lead us into the next generation of being the leading state for industrial hemp," he said.
Comer said the dairy industry is over-regulated, but needs more federal support. The industry is feeling pressure from a flooded market, trade issues with Canada and larger producers squeezing out smaller ones. Comer said it's sad to see farmers selling their cows and said a processor recently closed in Shelby County. Disputes with Canada have blocked cheese, notably Glasgow-area milk that is produced into cheese, he said. He hopes the farm bill will provide stability and give confidence to ag lenders to continue to provide access to credit for farmers.
Tariffs "Hit Home"
"We've got a crisis with our dairy farmers. We've got barriers to other countries with some of our commodities now, mainly with soybeans and cheese. We've got a lot of issues in the farm economy," Comer said. The issue of tariffs is having a "big impact" on the farm bill, he said.
"We've got some challenges over the next five years especially when you start messing with trade. The reason agriculture's grown so much in Kentucky over the last decade is because our export markets have exploded. Now we've had the door slammed in our face with tobacco, with soybeans, with the corn that's going into bourbon. It's a tricky situation out there and it's imperative that we have a stable federal crop insurance program."
He said it's imperative that farm policy makes it "crystal clear" that the country doesn't want subsidies or tariffs, but want to compete in a free and fair open market. "And if we can do that, America will win," he said.
Comer said he is personally affected by the tariff dispute as he has a 750-acre crop of soybeans this year. He said he's well aware of soybean prices and the break-even margins. "It hits home with me," he said. Soybeans are the top ag export for the U.S. and China is the top buyer. After China's recently retaliatory efforts amidst the trade dispute, soybean commodity prices have dropped to a 10-year low.
"Tariffs are never a good route to go," Comer said, but appreciates President Trump standing up to China. Comer said the country poses a threat not only in trade, but also in their military. "China is a country that we need to be focusing on. China cheats. They don't abide by the 1964 trade agreement. They do not abide by our patents and they steal our intellectual property. We have a huge trade imbalance with China."
Even so, Comer said agriculture being on "the front line" of a trade war is a scary prospect. He holds out hope Trump will negotiate new trade agreements with China and that the issue will work out in the end.
"But right now it's a scary time. I want every farmer to know, whether you're a soybean farmer or a dairy farmer, I'm doing everything I can as a member of Congress to see that we protect our farmers and we try to get out of this trade war and get it resolved and let us compete on a level playing field with the rest of the world."
Divide Over SNAP Work Requirements
The biggest difference between the House and Senate versions of the Farm Bill is a Republican House effort to include work requirements for "able-bodied" adults in order to receive SNAP benefits. Democrats have been unanimous in their opposition to the Farm Bill as a result of the requirement. The Senate version does not include the requirement.
As NPR has reported, the measure requires millions of Americans who receive government assistance for food to work 20 hours a week or enroll in job training programs in order to keep their benefits. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 42 million Americans participated in the SNAP program in 2017. If the work requirement is signed into law, an estimated one-million low-income households would see a reduction or elimination of food assistance, according to the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
According to the Food Resource Action Center, in 2016, about 15% of Kentucky households received SNAP benefits - with higher percentages outside of metro areas. In Congressman Comer's district, more than 14% received SNAP.
Comer said he "strongly supports" the work requirement language. He said the rules apply to able-bodied individuals who don't have dependents at home, doesn't include children or the elderly, or single or working moms.
"If you're deemed able-bodied and you're sitting at home because it's more advantageous to not work then work, then it will impact you. And what we're asking is that you work 20 hours a week and you can continue to receive food stamps. Just start taking the steps to get off of welfare and into the workforce if you're able-bodied."
Comer said the working people in his district are offended by people who find it more advantageous to not work than work. "Most of my district are small, rural counties where everyone knows everyone. They know people who have never worked. They're third or fourth generation. They're able-bodied. They just don't work. Because, why should they, when they can just get government assistance?"
The House bill includes funding for workforce development and job training, Comer said. He said the good thing about tightening the southern border with Mexico is that there are less "illegals" in the country, but said the negative is that there are less workers and now there's a shortage. He suggested able-bodied people who aren't currently in the workforce could fill that need. Harvest Public Media reported the proposal calls for states to expand training programs, which may look similar to a pilot program in Nebraska.
The Farm Bill, Comer said, is the biggest piece of legislation that could pass this year in Congress. "If we're going to reform welfare, this is the only bill that's on the path to be signed into law that could significantly reform welfare," he said, but added that odds of work requirements ending up in the final bill are 50-50 since it's not in the Senate version and Democrats are in opposition.
Work requirements aside, Comer said differences on the agricultural side of the Farm Bill are minimal and said changes on that end might involve adjustments due to the tariff issue.
Comer said the Farm Bill needs to be finished before the current bill expires on September 30. "The last thing [farmers] want to read in the paper or listen to on the radio is 'Congress fails to pass Farm Bill by September 30.'"