Parties first, farmers second.
That is the biggest difference in agricultural policy from 1976 and 2017, Barry Flinchbaugh, professor of agricultural economics, said during Tuesday’s Food for Thought Upson Lecture Series, titled “Ag Policy in the Trump Administration.“
Flinchbaugh, a leading agricultural economics expert, has contributed to the development of every farm bill since 1974.
“In 1976, politicians of both parties put farmers and ranchers first and parties and politics second,” Flinchbaugh said. “Today, across the country, it is party first and farmers second … that is clearly what has happened. Not only in Washington, but in Topeka.”
And where there is economics, there is politics, Flinchbaugh said.
To predict what policy — or the cake — might look like under President Donald Trump’s administration is not easy, Flinchbaugh said.
“Maybe the best way to begin this is, ‘If I knew, I’d tell you,'” he said. “But that’s not going to stop me.”
The era, Flinchbaugh said, will be known in history books as “the era of uncertainty, or perhaps the age of Trump, or more accurately the age of Twitter.”
As someone who has studied agricultural policy for more than 50 years, Flinchbaugh said it has never been more difficult to predict policy than under Trump and the current Congress.
“Predictors like consistency, certainty, logic, stability, moderation — none of these words are in the lexicon of the president of the United States, nor of many leaders in Congress,” Flinchbaugh said.
Quoting former President Harry Truman from the 1948 election — the first presidential election Flinchbaugh can remember — “I don’t give anybody hell. I just tell the truth and they think it’s hell.”
The truth, Flinchbaugh said, is uncertainty is the only certainty in agricultural policy under the Trump administration.
And while there may be uncertainty, the current system can still be improved.
“I’m going to look at four big issues and I’m going to do what I’ve done now for 50 years: hand out grades,” Flinchbaugh said.
Ag policy progress report, according to Flinchbaugh:
- Farm Bill: A-
- Trade: F-
- Immigration: C
- Deregulation: A-
“So it’s a mixed bag,” Flinchbaugh said.
“Those gutless wonders back there in Washington cannot make a decision so they pass it on to us.”
— Barry Flinchbaugh
The current farm bill expires in 2018, and Flinchbaugh said it did the job it was designed to do.
“There won’t be any big changes in the new farm bill,” Flinchbaugh predicted.
The new farm bill will have a price-based program and a revenue-based program, allowing farmers to choose, Flinchbaugh said.
“Now, some farmers complain about that,” Flinchbaugh said. “Those gutless wonders back there in Washington cannot make a decision so they pass it on to us … the more decisions we can make, and the less they make, the better off we’re likely to be, so don’t push them to decide between price and revenue.”
The conditions in which the new farm bill will be debated are just about right, Flinchbaugh said.
“I would much rather debate a farm bill when incomes are low in farm country than when they’re high,” Flinchbaugh said. “And that gets more and more true every cycle because there are so few of us left.”
Net cash farm income has declined from $136 billion to $90 billion in three years and government payments to farmers have increased only from $9 billion to $10 billion.
“They’re not making up the difference as they’re designed to do,” Flinchbaugh said. “How would you describe the economy that President Trump inherited? The best words come from President (Ronald) Reagan: ‘So-so.'”
Congress is in charge of the farm bill, but Trump must sign it, so compromise is necessary, Flinchbaugh said.
For example, food and nutrition programs — which make up 80 percent of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s budget — are included in the farm bill. Flinchbaugh said Congress must not separate the programs from the farm bill in order for the 2018 Farm Bill to pass.
Other issues requiring compromise include the Agriculture Department’s budget, Agriculture Risk Coverage and Price Loss Coverage and conservation programs.
“The president’s numbers are fake news, (or) at least he’s not figuring it correctly.”
— Barry Flinchbaugh
“I am firmly convinced (Trump) is an old-fashioned protectionist,” Flinchbaugh said.
Twenty-five percent of American agricultural products find homes outside of the U.S.
“If (Trump) walked in here tonight, I would tell him, ‘Which 25 percent of America’s farmers are you going to put out of business with your trade policy that won’t work?'” Flinchbaugh said.
The North American Free Trade Agreement, which has benefited the U.S., Canada and Mexico, has created a net gain of jobs and Trump does not understand what he is doing by alienating both American farmers and other countries, Flinchbaugh said.
“The president’s numbers are fake news,” Flinchbaugh said. “(Or) at least he’s not figuring it correctly … (jobs) are clearly a net gain.”
As for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Flinchbaugh said Trump of all people should know how to deal with bullies.
“You create a bigger bully called TPP,” Flinchbaugh said.
Trump pulled the U.S. out of Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, which concerns U.S. farmers and ranchers as this may allow for China, the world’s largest-growing market for beef, to fill the gap.
“You don’t do bilateral agreements in the pacific region, you need another bully: TPP,” Flinchbaugh said.
“A seasonal workforce doesn’t work. That is so simple, I can even teach that to KU students.”
— Barry Flinchbaugh
“It’s rather simple, at least when you look at the economics,” Flinchbaugh said. “Agriculture needs a permanent, legal, immigrant workforce. End of story.”
Seventy percent of the agricultural industry’s workforce is in the country illegally and about half of the cows milked in the U.S. are milked by immigrants who came to the country illegally, Flinchbaugh said.
“And guess what?” Flinchbaugh asked. “You have to milk those cows every day. A seasonal workforce doesn’t work. That is so simple, I can even teach that to KU students.”
The Waters of the United States rule in the Clean Water Act will greatly expand the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate water, which is a state versus federal issue, Flinchbaugh said.
“We all know that each watershed is unique,” he said. “And therefore the plans to make the decision (should be) at … the state level rather than the federal.”
Flinchbaugh said livestock producers have made leaps in the last 25 years through value-based marketing, but the rules and regulations under the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration will put that at risk.
“We’ll revert back to the one-size-fits-all buying principle that will hurt meat demands,” Flinchbaugh said. “So that’s just two major regulations that are important to agriculture that the president has agreed to eliminate.”
Learning outside the class
Max Roby, junior in agribusiness, took Flinchbaugh’s agricultural policy class in fall 2016 and said he attended the lecture to hear him speak again.
“We heard about potential policy under both candidates in class,” Roby said. “Now that Trump has had time in the administration, I wanted to know what it would look like moving forward. And we are not drowning with the new administration, but there can definitely be improvements.”
Chance Hunley, senior in agricultural communications and journalism and president of Food for Thought, said the group invited Flinchbaugh to speak because of his expertise in agricultural policy.
“With the new administration, there can be a lot of uncertainty among the farm and the agricultural community,” Hunley said. “And we thought it was a great opportunity to spread the message to a college audience of people who haven’t hit the workforce yet. Even to experts, ag policy is going to look very uncertain, but we are in a very good position to establish longstanding beneficial ag policy for the next generation.”
Editor’s note: This was updated to clarify the connection between U.S. farmers and China after Trump pulled the U.S. out of Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations.