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McMorris Rodgers tells wheat growers food assistance should stay as part of farm bill

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers answers a question from Larry Cochran, a Whitman County wheat grower, as Whitman County Commissioner Art Swannack, left, and Scott Yates, right, of the Washington Grain Commission look on Monday, April 17, 2017, in Colfax, Wash. (Kip Hill / The Spokesman-Review)

The country’s next farm bill needs to keep the historic pairing of crop supports and food assistance for the poor, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers told a small group of Whitman County wheat growers this week.

“I support keeping it together,” the fourth-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives said at a roundtable with farmers in Colfax held Monday, more than a full year before Congress faces a deadline to reauthorize a farm bill that faced historic opposition in 2013. “I think that’s going to be our most successful approach.”

But McMorris Rodgers said that decision, and many other details about the farm bill, remain nebulous as lawmakers on Capitol Hill ramp up discussions about the legislative package likely to face similar hurdles in the coming year.

Conservative think tanks already are pointing to the package, which was projected to cost $956 billion over a decade when it passed in 2014, as a prime target to trim the country’s budget deficit, and President Donald Trump included deep cuts to the United States Department of Agriculture in his first budget proposal released last month.

Concerns about cuts to assistance for farmers in the next round of negotiations was enough to prompt Rep. Mike Conaway, the Texas Republican who chairs the House of Representatives’ Agriculture Committee, to write a warning to his counterpart on the budget-writing panel, Rep. Diane Black, R-Tennessee, last month.

“The Committee believes it is especially significant that the aggregate level of taxpayer savings from all of the farm bill titles – $104 billion – is being achieved amid extremely difficult and worsening times in farm and ranch country,” Conaway wrote, citing January figures from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office forecasting deficit reductions instituted in the 2014 farm bill.

Farmers told McMorris Rodgers on Monday that they gave up a lot in the last round of farm bill negotiations. That bill put an end to a direct payment subsidy program in favor of rigid crop insurance systems that require farmers to lock in their choice of coverage for five years.

“While there are many demands for dollars in Washington D.C., we made do with less in good times before, now these are tough times,” said Alex McGregor, who farms about 4,000 acres of wheat near Hooper in Whitman County and is president of The McGregor Co., a supply company based in Colfax.

The price for a bushel of soft white wheat grown on the Palouse depends heavily on foreign markets. It dipped below $4.75 this week in Portland. Four years ago, that same bushel sold for nearly $7, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

About 40 percent of the wheat harvested in Washington last year also scored poorly on a test measuring grain quality, leading to further discounts on the price of a bushel. The so-called “falling numbers” test was developed in the 1960s as a way for buyers to determine if kernels would produce noodles, sponge cakes and other products with a desired consistency. Drastic temperature fluctuations and untimely rainfall just before harvest can lead to lower falling numbers and turn away the global buyers interested in buying high quality, Palouse-grown wheat.

Those conditions combined last year to hit a significant portion of Washington’s crop, which saw numbers typically above the industry standard of 300 fall below 100 in some extreme cases. The industry estimates millions of dollars were lost as a result of the crop damage.

Beyond the farm bill, wheat growers across the Northwest have requested Congress set aside up to $3 million over the next two years to study conditions that affect falling number scores and to study how accurate the test is. McMorris Rodgers has signed a letter of support.

“It seemed like the test needed to be updated,” McMorris Rodgers said. “It’s a very old test, and wasn’t consistent.”

Farmers also questioned McMorris Rodgers about Trump’s trade proposals, following the president’s decision to nix the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal and his stated preference for bilateral agreements rather than multinational compacts. The industry estimates up to 90 percent of the wheat grown in Washington is shipped overseas.

The congresswoman, in a tongue-in-cheek moment channeling the businessman president’s lofty campaign promises, said Trump had assured her “we’re going to have lots of trade agreements, we’re going to have so many trade agreements.”

“But I think we need to get some people in place, that can start the process on trade, start negotiating,” she said. Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Agriculture, Gov. Sonny Perdue of Georgia, has been recommended to the full Senate for approval but has not yet taken office.

The congresswoman signaled that farmers likely would need to renew alliances with advocates of food assistance for the next round of negotiations on the farm bill, even as House Speaker, Rep. Paul Ryan, eyes next year as a prime opportunity to re-evaluate federal spending on assistance programs. According to the Agriculture Department, about 18 percent of homes in McMorris Rodgers’ district accept assistance from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), previously known as food stamps.

“I think the speaker would really like to take on an overhaul of all the poverty programs,” McMorris Rodgers said. “He’d like to lead that in 2018. He’s talked about reining in the nutrition program, food stamps, even Medicaid, that would all be a rethinking of our poverty programs in America, which is a huge undertaking.”

McMorris Rodgers said Ryan’s intent is to move Americans towards self-sufficiency and away from dependency on government programs.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat, said she too believed food assistance should remain part of the farm legislation.

“Clearly SNAP is going to be a critical part of that,” she said Tuesday.

On whether crop insurance is working, Murray said she’s just starting to gather input from the agricultural sector about the bill and needed to speak with more farmers in Eastern Washington about the crop insurance program.

“I’d like to hear more from them as we go through this,” Murray said.

McMorris Rodgers told the group of about 10 participants in a roundtable held in downtown Colfax she had put in a request to hold a hearing on the federal farm bill in Eastern Washington as negotiations on a full legislative proposal continue.

Staff writer Rachel Alexander contributed to this report.