118th Congress holds critical first Ag Committee meeting

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118th Congress holds critical first Ag Committee meeting

New features on the face of the future of U.S. agriculture began to emerge in Washington, D.C. on the morning of Feb. 28. This was the first U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Agriculture hearing of the 118th Congress. The full Committee on Agriculture convened to hear comments from – and then question - six leading national agriculture leaders. The meeting went on for more than two hours.

Committee Chairman Glenn "GT" Thompson, (R-PA), positioned the meeting with his opening statement, which was titled, "Uncertainty, Inflation, Regulations: Challenges for American Agriculture.” 

Thompson says, “Our focus this morning will be on the headwinds facing production agriculture. Without a comprehensive understanding of industry’s challenges, we cannot write an impactful Farm Bill that addresses the needs of those who grow, process, and consume the food, fuel, and fiber we are blessed to produce here in the United States.”

The guest speaker speaking most directly to matters of global food trade was Peter Friedmann, executive director of the Washington-based Agriculture Transportation Coalition. He indicates that his group has been called the principal voice of  U.S. agriculture exporters in transportation policy.

Friedman adds, “there is virtually nothing produced in agriculture and forest products in this country that cannot be sourced somewhere else in the world. If we are not able to deliver it affordably and dependably to our foreign customers, those foreign customers have other places to go. They will find substitutes and in the past when they’ve done so, it is very difficult for U.S. agriculture to get those markets back again.” Friedman notes there are “plenty of stories,” including U.S. cotton, soybeans, almonds and walnuts that “lost foreign markets because our transportation did not meet the needs of an affordable dependable supply.” 

Friedman indicates there are only ten ocean carriers in the world. These are all foreign owned, and provide the only options “to get our agriculture products out and the inputs to get our agriculture needs into this country.”

Thus, ongoing oversight is necessary to protect the United States’ role in global food trade. 

Friedman also discusses domestic transportation. Foremost he said truck weight limits need to be increased. He credits members of the House Ag committee for introducing the Ship It Act to increase truck weight limits be closer to those of Canada and Europe. California particularly has very low truck weights but the U.S. generally has some of lowest truck weight limits in the world. This forces more trucks onto the highways, which increases traffic, shipping and product costs.

Also on the domestic transportation front, Friedman says the West Coast longshore labor dispute, “which has been going on too long,” needs resolution. He notes this dispute has shifted ocean routes to U.S. East Coast and Gulf Coast ports, while agricultural exports need more ports than that.

The best name of those testifying belongs to Zippy Duvall, who is president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, which is also based in Washington, D.C.

Duvall notes, “The country that cannot feed its people is not secure. So, the strong farm policy that supports a strong food policy is truly a part of a smart national security strategy.” 

Recent challenges confronting U.S. agriculture have ranged from the trade war with China, to pandemic shutdowns, to supply chain disruptions. Duvall cites other challenges being record high supply costs and unprecedented volatility in recent years. A recent USDA study forecasts a 15.9% decrease in net farm income in 2023. Adjusted for inflation that is an 18% drop. The same report predicts farm expenses will increase by $18 billion in 2023, up from a record $17 billion increase in 2022.

 The other four speakers before the Feb. 28 ag committee meeting were Corey Rosenbusch, president and CEO of The Fertilizer Institute, Arlington, VA; Michael Twining, vice president of sales and marketing for Willard Agri-Service, Worton, MD, and representatives of two more Washington-based associations, Mike Brown, president, of the National Chicken Council, and Rob Larew, president of the National Farmers Union.

Chairman Glenn Thompson’s opening remarks indicated, "As we seek solutions, it is my vision that this Committee will provide the necessary tools to our farmers and ranchers to ease the barriers to production felt in recent years. As Chairman, I challenge each member of the Agriculture Committee to view all policies through the lens of science, technology, and innovation, and identify forward-looking solutions throughout our work.”

Thompson notes that in the U.S., food and fiber production has increased nearly three-fold since the 1940s. But, “the uncertainty caused by a global pandemic, geopolitical unrest, and incessant government intrusion has led to a modest production decline in recent years.” 

He stresses that enduring production agriculture policies are essential to national security. Maintaining a safe, abundant, and affordable domestic food supply is equally essential, as is meeting the needs of perennial global food crises. Among the greatest issues for agriculture are labor, fuel, fertilizer, inflation, and interest rates.

Thompson says the average cost of diesel fuel per gallon increased 95% between 2020 and 2022. The 2022 average Henry Hub real natural gas spot price increased 53% from 2021. Fertilizer inputs such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium increased 125 percent in 2021 and an additional 30% in the first five months of 2022 alone. Urea, the most applied nitrogen fertilizer, increased 205% in price between 2020 and 2022.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has increased energy prices, fertilizer cost spikes and shortages, and worsening food scarcities in developing countries. Meanwhile, Thompson says, “American consumers are watching in dismay as their grocery and energy bills skyrocket. The Biden Administration continues to ignore these crises, neglecting America’s producers and consumers. In fact, this Administration continues to promote nonsensical regulations and policies that create needless uncertainty for farmers, ranchers, and working families, further limiting our ability to meet the growing food demands of our nation and the world.”

He adds, “I believe one of the few silver linings—maybe the only silver lining—of the coronavirus pandemic is Americans’ heightened awareness of the importance of a reliable, domestic food supply and the producers who provide it.”

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