“If you’re not at the table, you’re probably on the menu,” Thompson told the crowd.
Technically the event had to be termed a congressional listening session, rather than an ag committee public hearing, which would have a formal set of rules and be made part of the official committee record.
“It’s not an official hearing, but, well, it is, as far as I’m concerned,” Thompson said as he opened the session. He noted that the first chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Federalist Rep. Thomas Forrest, was from Pennsylvania, and that he was the third Pennsylvanian, since Democratic Rep. John Dawson led the committee in 1853-1855.
The session was attended by a bipartisan group of eight other members, as well as Russell Redding, who has just agreed to serve a third stint as Pennsylvania’s secretary of agriculture under the new governor, Democrat Josh Shapiro.
Among those listening to the stakeholders who spoke were House Ag Committee members from the 117th Congress Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., who is expected to chair the commodities and risk management subcommittee, and Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., expected to chair the forestry and conservation subcommittee.
Also attending were Reps. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine and Mary Miller, R-Ill., who served on the ag committee in the 117th Congress, and Rep. Dwight Evans, D-Pa., and Rep. Dan Meuser, R-Pa., and Rep. Derrick Van Orden, a newly elected Republican from Wisconsin.The members of the ag committee in the 118th Congress have not been formally named.
Redding spoke first, noting that Pennsylvania has its own farm bill that “fills in around the edges” of the federal bill, and that the federal bill must find equity “between the San Joaquin Valley [in California] and the Susquehanna Valley [in Pennsylvania.]”
Of the 19 other stakeholders who presented brief testimonies, representing commodities, food banks, land-grant universities, and employment centers, common themes emerged on the need for the government to resolve immigration issues and recognize the need for a year-round work force, to maintain and improve crop insurance programs, and to make any conservation and climate-control programs strictly voluntary and incentive-based, free from government mandates.
Joe Arthur of the Pennsylvania Central Food Bank emphasized that “the food crisis is not over,” and in fact, may be “deepening” because of the inflation and “other food system challenges.”
Kia Hansard of the Harrisburg Center for Employment Opportunities urged the lawmakers to close a loophole in the law that has Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program beneficiaries losing benefits when they earn income from temporary SNAP Employment & Training jobs.
Kay Rentzel, who manages the National Peach Council and the United States Sweet Potato Council, said that specialty crops should get a proportional share of farm bill resources, including in conservation, and emphasized the need for research.
Frank Stoltzfus of the Pennsylvania Cattlemen’s Association said he is “not necessarily in favor of a livestock title” in the farm bill, saying “unnecessary regulations and mandates” could cause difficulties in getting the bill passed.
He also defended the cattle industry against claims that methane emission from herds was damaging the environment,” saying “blue skies and green grass make red meat.”
Sherry Bunting of the Pennsylvania Dairy Advisory Committee and a number of other speakers defended the need to get whole milk back in schools.
Bunting acknowledged that the milk issue is not something covered in the farm bill, but advocated for a mention of “nutrient dense” foods like whole milk in the nutrition title, rather than what she called “arbitrary and outdated” policies favoring fat-free milk.
(The types of milk served in the schools are determined by the child nutrition programs, which are under the jurisdiction of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, which the Democrats called the House Education and Labor Committee, and by the Agriculture Department.)
The members of Congress in attendance each had a few minutes to speak at the end of the session, by and large repeating the concerns voiced by the stakeholders.
Scott noted it is important that risk management programs have a goal of just reducing risk, not guaranteeing a profit. He did note that reference prices and loan rates need to be adjusted to reflect today’s economy.
LaMalfa, a rice farmer from northern California who is expected to be chairman of the Conservation and Forestry Subcommittee, expressed concern about the trend toward “electrification” of everything, and urged the use of caution and common sense when it comes to addressing climate change concerns.
Pingree, one of two Democratic members present, said that as an organic farmer and ag tourism operator, it has been “fun to serve” for many years on the agriculture committee.
She spoke briefly about the role of healthy food as medicine, the importance of reducing food waste, and the need to properly fund conservation programs.
She said the government needs to be “treating farmers as partners” in addressing climate change, and to be “working hand in hand” with farmers.“It’s really important for food and farming to be together,” she said.