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2017: A Rocky Road Ahead

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Rocky Road ice cream was invented in 1929. Two California ice cream makers put walnuts and marshmallows in their chocolate ice cream as a way of helping people smile during the Great Depression. While the current economic downturn in the farm economy is not the Great Depression, we are going to need some reasons to smile in 2017. And, frankly, agriculture will be facing a rocky road over the next few years.

Not only are livestock and grain farmers facing another year with little or no prospects for profits, interest rates are on the rise which means the money you need to borrow will cost you more. It against this backdrop that a new group of lawmakers with a new attitude and mandate will start discussing future farm policy.

The 115th Congress is back in Washington and will begin work on a new Farm Bill this session. This is a Farm Bill that will determine what kind of safety net farmers will have for the next several years.  This rocky road may be especially difficult to navigate because fiscal conservatives in Congress, most of whom are from urban districts, are very anxious to take a whack at farm program costs.

The Trump White House will also be looking for ways to reduce the size of government. So, cutting farm programs like crop insurance and conservation programs may be tempting. The Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) will also face new attacks from the oil lobby as well as conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation, a powerful lobby group that supports free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.

Last time around, a Congressional food fight over funding for SNAP, the food assistance program, almost sank the Farm Bill.   This program will again likely come under attack. Agriculture needs to support the nutrition title and keep it as part of the Farm Bill. While there is a growing awareness in farm organizations that agriculture needs to build coalitions with supporters of SNAP, it is not universal. Like it or not, the future of the Farm Bill is tied to the success of the Nutrition title.  If farmers want support for farm programs, the RFS, and conservation, they will need to support SNAP, WIC, school lunches, and efforts to address food deserts.

It is going to take a level of unity and advocacy by agriculture that we have not seen before to navigate the rocky road ahead. Not only will we need to build consensus within agriculture, we will have to learn how to work with other groups with which we may not be comfortable.

The actual inventor of Rocky Road ice cream is disputed. Several different ice creams makers claim to have been first.  Hopefully, agriculture can find a bit more unity or 2017 will indeed be a very rocky road.

By Gary Truitt