Hill of Beans
By Tony Eberhard, IDFA Vice President of Legislative Affairs
Welcome to “Hill of Beans,” a periodic update by Tony Eberhard about the association’s work in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate to advance dairy industry priorities. After working on the Hill for various members of Congress and senators since 2001, Eberhard gives IDFA readers a former Hill staffer’s take on what is going on and how it affects our priorities
“There is a lot of work being done in the House and Senate that never makes the headlines but affects members’ bottom lines, and I’m hoping these updates will prove useful to you and your organization,” Eberhard said. “I’m titling these updates ‘Hill of Beans’ because to many in national media this information might not amount to much, but to our industry’s agenda in Congress, it is critical.” Read the update below.
House Ag Committee Hearing Highlights Key Dairy Issues
The House Agriculture Committee hearing on the state of the rural economy this week spoke to the significance and complexity of the agriculture sector, including issues of importance to the dairy industry.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue testified before the committee, noting that “The economic success of the United States today and in the future depends on optimizing rural America’s productivity and quality of life.”
It is hard to have quality of life without providing schools the flexibility to ensure our kids have access to the healthy, nutritious foods they need to succeed. This an issue Congressman Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.) asked the Secretary about in the context of the interim final rule the administration proposed last year to allow low-fat flavored milk in schools. Specifically, Congressman Thompson asked the Secretary if schools can follow the interim final rule and include 1 percent flavored milk in their bids for the 2018/2019 school year without waiting for the final rule to be promulgated. In response, Secretary Perdue stated that is certainly USDA’s intention, but he did note that he would welcome enactment of Congressman Thompson’s bill, the School Milk Nutrition Act (H.R. 4101), which would codify the administration’s policy in statute. IDFA strongly supports the School Milk Nutrition Act.
Meanwhile, Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) noted the importance of market access for U.S. agriculture as the Administration pursues better trade deals. The importance of successful trade negotiations to dairy was further pursued by Congressman Jim Costa (D-Calif.) who noted that a large share of California’s milk goes to Mexico and asked the Secretary about where NAFTA negotiations stand. Secretary Perdue said he believes the U.S. can get a better deal from both Canada and Mexico in the negotiations and that once the Mexican elections are out of the way this summer, we could have a deal on NAFTA by the end of the year. A successfully modernized NAFTA that preserves dairy access in Mexico would certainly be welcome news as the U.S. ships over $1 billion a year in dairy products to Mexico.
Labor, another topic of vital importance to the dairy industry, was raised by Congressman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee is author of a proposal to improve the legal workforce for agriculture, an effort appreciated by IDFA. Congressman Goodlatte asked how overhauling the current H-2A program for temporary agricultural workers would benefit the rural economy, to which the Secretary noted that creating a legal workforce for agriculture is one of top three things USDA hears about. In particular, the Secretary noted that it is not just about seasonal workers but also about dairy and year-round workers, which was a welcome recognition from the Secretary of the labor issues faced by the dairy industry. Encouragingly, the Secretary expressed his hope that this reform can work its way into the immigration debate Congress is considering.
Secretary Perdue concluded his testimony, saying that “Producers continue to find the farm safety net less effective for dairy and cotton than for other commodities,” and he noted that he continues to work with Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) to improve the safety net through the Margin Protection Program and the Livestock Gross Margin program.
While there are no shortage of challenges facing agriculture and the dairy industry, it is clear that Members of Congress on the House Agriculture Committee and the Secretary of Agriculture are working to find solutions to empower the agriculture sector to continue building a stronger U.S. economy.