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ALMA — U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner emphasized Friday the importance of building political support for new farm bill legislation by preserving the bipartisan coalition willing to link the federal government’s nutrition programs and agriculture policy.

LaTurner, the 2nd District Republican, hosted a roundtable discussion in the Flint Hills with farm and ranch special-interest groups. He said cooperation among urban Democrats and rural Republicans in Washington, D.C., was essential to moving the bill through a divided Congress and earning the signature of President Joe Biden.

He said the history of bipartisan negotiations on farm bills was a hallmark of the late U.S. Sen. Robert Dole, who represented Kansas from 1961 to 1996.

“It is really important to make sure this stays bipartisan,” LaTurner said. “It is difficult to get representatives from urban areas to support the farm industry and ag producers, and we need them. It’s a tough coalition that we need to keep together.”

U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, a Georgia Republican on the House Agriculture Committee, said in July there was merit in separating farm and food policy because the mixture fostered emotional and political conflict. Republican and Democratic advocates of the blended approach believe it helped sidestep some of the more partisan aspects of food aid earmarked consumers and financial aid dedicated to producers.

LaTurner said the farm bill wouldn’t be completed by the Sept. 30 expiration of the 2018 farm law, meaning an extension of current policy would be necessary. It’s possible a deal could be worked out by the end of 2023, he said.

“The farm bill is something that has been bipartisan for decades. We need to insist it’s bipartisan this year as well,” he said.

Water, workforce

On Thursday, Gov. Laura Kelly participated in the annual governor’s summit on agriculture with 400 people in Manhattan. She said Kansas agriculture in 2022 contributed $76 billion to the state’s economy and was linked to 250,000 jobs or 14% of the state’s workforce.

Kansas set a record for agricultural exports last year by shipping products valued at $5.5 billion, she said.

“Despite the many hurdles thrown our way, including the ongoing drought, which has devastated this summer’s wheat harvest, the Kansas ag industry remains strong,” Kelly said. “ There’s no doubt Kansas remains a worldwide powerhouse in agriculture. But it’s also clear that to keep our ag industry modern and competitive, we have to solve two major challenges facing us — water and workforce shortages.”

During LaTurner’s roundtable discussion near Alma, participants pointed with alarm to prolonged drought and damage to crop and livestock production.

Dave Spears, executive vice president of Mid Kansas Coop, said the new farm bill had to preserve subsidized crop insurance to shield farmers from financial losses associated with low harvest yields or cratering of market prices.

“I think everybody would just say, ‘amen,’ to federal crop insurance. Such a big stake in that for all our farmers. When our farmers are successful, ag retail is successful as well,” Spears said.

He said a huge challenge for the agriculture industry in Kansas was the insufficient supply of labor. It was time for Congress to fix regulatory obstacles in the federal H-2A program that enabled U.S. employers to temporarily bring workers to this country, he said.

Taylor Williamson, director of policy and regulatory affairs for Kansas Corn, said the farm bill should address expansion of opportunities to export commodities, especially to developing countries.

“It doesn’t look very positive across the board for any commodity,” Williamson said. “Margins are tight. Prices are continuing to fall. It’s still an issue and I think that really, really highlights how important crop insurance is.”

Operating costs

Brody Peak, owner of Emporia Livestock Sales, said the Federal Reserve’s attempts to control inflation by nudging up interest rates on borrowing was a blow to farmers already struggling with economics of feeding cattle. He said interest costs had climbed $50 a head from one year ago. Lack of rain undercut the hay crop and made it more costly to sustain herds through the 2023-2024 winter, he said.

“The amount of capital it takes to do business today, it’s a problem,” Peak said. “Thank God the market is going up, but they’ve (beef producers) got to make it through the winter. Your (grain farmers) input costs are going down. Cowboys’ costs are going straight through the roof. It’s tough.”

LaTurner said Congress didn’t have influence over the Federal Reserve, but the House and Senate could help the economy and moderate inflation by limiting federal expenditures.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the government poured trillions of dollars into the economy.

“Money that we didn’t have in the first place and it created this inflationary problem,” the congressman said. “Step number one for us in my estimation is to stop doing that.”