Nebraska’s congressional delegation during a recent event at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)
LINCOLN — A push for the nation’s next farm bill came Monday to East Campus at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, as part of a rare joint visit by all five members of the state’s congressional delegation.
University leaders pressed the need for the bill to invest in agricultural research, as the five members, all Republicans, spoke to students and watched their ag robots work. Farmers and ranchers shared what they want to see in the bill, which is scheduled to be renewed every five years.
Farmers, who met the delegation off-campus without reporters present, said they want to protect federal crop insurance from cuts in funding or changes that would damage a safety net program that planters rely on to survive volatile weather, including two straight years of drought, lawmakers said afterward.
“The main thing people were saying is that they want to preserve it,” U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, who serves on the House Agriculture Committee, said about crop insurance after meeting with a group of farmers and ranchers. “The farmers are being made whole right now, or they’d be selling their farms.”
Debate could stretch into 2024
The need to negotiate an agreement that addresses both rural and urban concerns could push the new bill into 2024, said Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., who serves on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee. She said it might take months to hammer out the specifics of a deal.
“It’s not my first rodeo,” Fischer said of the farm bill. “We’ve gotten an early deal, and then if we need to do an extension, we’ll try and get the things we need for the people here in the state of Nebraska.”
House Republicans and some GOP senators have been pressing for discretionary spending cuts during and after recent debt ceiling negotiations. Some deficit hawks have targeted the 2018 farm bill, which cost taxpayers an estimated $800 billion over a decade, according to a Washington Post estimate.
Much of that money pays for nutrition programs, including school lunches and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, which help secure urban support for farm programs. All five members of Nebraska’s delegation were asked how they square their support of spending cuts with support for farm programs.
Several said that while they want to cut federal spending, they would prefer to cut programs that they consider less effective. U.S. Rep. Mike Flood said the farm bill has helped keep food costs lower for Americans and boosts the ability of U.S. exports to compete for international customers.
“Sometimes we take our food security for granted,” said Flood. “Sometimes we take the fact that we use less than 10% of our annual income to pay for our food, which is a lower number than almost any other country on earth.”
Rep. Adrian Smith said he wants to make sure the next farm bill keeps farmers and ranchers nimble enough economically to respond to the demands of consumers.
“We want the agility for producers to be able to innovate for the future and hopefully smooth things out economically for themselves,” Smith said.
Continued investments in research are a big part of that future, Smith said.
Santosh Pitla, a UNL professor of biological systems engineering, showed the delegation a student-led robotics project aimed at helping farmers hunt and kill more weeds with fewer chemicals. Others shared research projects that would grow food using less fertilizer, reducing pollution.
Sen. Pete Ricketts, Nebraska’s former governor, said it was a shift to see the University of Nebraska’s funding needs for research from the federal perspective. He said he appreciated research that could keep more nitrates out of drinking water.
“One of the cool things that all these folks are working on is how can we make sure we can do more with less,” Ricketts said. “How can we increase our production and use fewer inputs, fewer resources, so that we can feed a growing world and have less of an impact?”
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