The U.S. House and Senate each passed their own very different version of the 2018 farm bill, setting up a sprint to a Sept. 30 deadline, when the current legislation expires. If they fail to come to a compromise and pass a bill that President Trump will sign, farmers could face disruptions in many crucial federal programs covered by the farm bill, including crop insurance programs and agricultural research, as well as food assistance for low-income citizens. Isaiah Wunsch served as one of nine members of the Michigan Farm Bureau Task Force that communicated legislative priorities and suggestions with Michigan’s Congressional delegation. Wunsch, who grows market-fresh cherries and apples at Wunsch Farms on the Old Mission Peninsula north of Traverse City, spoke with MiBiz about the importance of passing the farm bill.
What was the aim of the Farm Bill Task Force at the Michigan Farm Bureau?
We were assembled to work on emphasizing the priorities for the farm bill for farmers in Michigan and then take it to the national organization. It’s a more important issue in Michigan than other states because of the diversity of our agriculture base. We grow almost 300 different crops in the state. (The process) involves a lot of deliberation and looking over a lot of different sections. As far as the (task force’s) priorities, we were working on maintaining research funding for specialty crop research initiatives. For me, as a cherry grower, that was very important.
The new bill has a high precedence for protecting the Great Lakes and supporting local food economies. What’s something that stood out for you?
It was important for us to maintain and modernize some of the crop insurance programs. … The state’s dairy industry is struggling and I know the markets have been contracting … but the dairy issues are not unique to Michigan. We were supportive of maintaining current funding for (Environmental Quality Incentives Program), a program for environmental quality (and) dependability practices. It helps farmers with manure management to reduce risks of environmental issues like leakage, and on the crop side, it helps to have more accurate applications of fertilizers and chemicals. We were working on programs to continue the Conservation Stewardship Program, which incentivizes farmers to implement sustainable practices on their land, where you are making changes to the landscape to reduce ag runoff. My sense is overall our staff is pleased with the outcome.
After the Senate passed its bill in June, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said it would create jobs and strengthen the communities throughout the state that take pride in their farming. What’s the hardest part of getting a bill like this to pass?
I think the hardest part of getting this bill to pass is to make sure you find the balance between diverse stakeholder groups. The farm bill is unique and broad-based. It has an impact on everyone who lives in this country — we all need to eat. The challenge is always to negotiate the ag interests, advocates for food access for low-income people (and) you also have people for land conservation and environmental quality. Finding the right zone between multiple groups is a challenge. There are a lot of policy issues, and there are pro and anti sides. With the farm bill, we have a lot of moving parts. Broadly, most members of Congress understand a need for a farm bill. More of the challenge is about the nuance.
How does the farm bill provide some certainty to farmers as tariffs kick in?
Tariffs are a concern for farmers across many different sectors. Dairy producers are facing low margins and are worried that tariffs will contract their industry even further. I know soybean farmers are also worried. I am a cherry and apple grower and a significant amount of our product is exported to countries that are being tariffed. With the farm bill, it’s important for us to come up with some kind of fix.
What do farmers think of the bills?
I think it’s too early to tell. Our group looked at more of a maintenance of the farm bill — the changes are relatively minor. But overall, the feedback I have heard from farmers and from other members of the task force over the last week or so has been positive. The dark clouds hanging over agriculture are trade and global oversupply issues (occurring in) many sectors. I think (the farm bill) will show support for farmers.
With the House and Senate passing different versions of the farm bill, what concerns do you have, if any, with each version?
I think there are strengths with both versions. I think I prefer to see a farm bill in the spirit of compromise that can go smoothly through the legislative process, and I think the Senate’s version is more in the spirit of compromise, as it takes more account of some of our local issues. There are pros and cons to both, of course. The priority for Michigan farmers is less about one version over the other and more about the two chambers working together to solve the issues.