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Farm bill deadline nears on heels of tariff fight

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    Kevin Fox says he’s replanted his 1,000 acres of soybeans three times on his farm in Ottawa County.

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    Kevin Fox

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GRAYTOWN, Ohio — Battered by heavy downpours, Kevin Fox watched 1,000 acres of soybeans wash away this spring at his Ottawa County farm.

Mr. Fox, 60, replanted the land three times. It wasn’t cheap.

“Years ago when my dad was a farmer they spent $60,000 planting a crop,” said Mr. Fox, who grows soybeans, wheat, and corn on 6,500 acres in Ottawa, Lucas, and Wood counties. “Today, we spend millions.”

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Kevin Fox

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Farming is a $10 billion industry in Ohio, and soybeans, the state’s largest agricultural commodity, account for nearly a quarter of an unpredictable market that stays afloat during hard times with the help of government subsidies and crop insurance.

Every five years, Congress and the U.S. Senate pass the massive farm bill, considered to be crucial legislation for rural America that establishes government programs for farmers with wide-reaching effects.

“It’s more than just farms and more than just food,” said agricultural economist Carl Zulauf, professor emeritus at Ohio State University.

While 80 percent of the $867 billion farm bill goes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — the House version of the bill imposes work requirements that would apply to millions of SNAP recipients — the rest deals with programs that directly impact the livelihood of Ohio farmers.

But unlike the SNAP provision, both versions leave subsidies and crop insurance intact, making it not so different from the 2014 bill, which expires Sept. 30.

Lawmakers returned from their July 4 recess with the task of reconciling the two versions before the fall deadline.

While the agriculture sections aren’t without technical changes, the House’s SNAP proposal is likely to be the biggest obstacle.

“I don’t want to imply that there are no major changes [for farmers],” Mr. Zulauf said, “but it’s closer to being a status quo bill.”

Joe Cornely, spokesman for the Ohio Farm Bureau, said the overall bill has his group’s approval.

“It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good,” he said. “Lawmakers took a pretty decent program and kept it fairly well intact.”

The bill’s negotiation occurs amid a 50 percent decline in the farming industry in the past five years, Mr. Cornely said, making the programs provided in the farm bill even more vital.

“The prices farmers receive are down and the costs they pay to farm are up,” he said. “You pay more to put up a crop and get less for it when you sell it.”

Mr. Cornely, whose organization has 150,000 members statewide, points to crop insurance as one of the most important parts of the farm bill.

“It’s designed to provide a safety net,” he said. “I don’t know a single farmer who wouldn’t rather earn his or her income solely from the marketplace, but so much of our ability to produce food is out of our hands.”

Industry advocates say uncertainty in export markets was another factor as the legislation was drafted.

President Trump’s imposition of tariffs on certain foreign goods has triggered retaliatory tariffs in markets where U.S. goods are exported.

Mr. Fox has watched as prices have fallen in the last month since the tariffs took effect. Soybeans, which were selling for about $10 a bushel at the start of June, are now selling for $8.50.

Six or so years ago the price was $15, he said.

“I voted for him,” Mr. Fox said of the President. “I have faith in what he’s doing, and I think it needed to be addressed, and I don’t think it’s just agriculture that’s going to suffer.”

“Donald Trump is negotiating all the time, so maybe it gets fixed,” he added. “But today it’s hurting farmers a lot.”

The tariffs are felt especially as more Ohio soybeans head overseas and distributors expand into specialty markets.

Farmers are growing beans for oils and non-GMO beans for tofu, said Bret Davis, an Ohio Soybean Association board member and farmer in Delaware County.

“We’re filling those niche needs so we can export as much as we can,” he said.

Farmers brought their concerns to legislators during a series of meetings led by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio), a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, who with Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio) backed the Senate’s bipartisan bill.

The House bill passed largely along party lines after failing its initial vote.

A farm bill might not emerge until well into fall. Negotiations on the 2014 bill went past the September deadline, triggering automatic changes in certain programs.

Mr. Zulauf said he expects lawmakers will try to pass the bill faster this time around.

“There’s this feeling that we don’t want to repeat what happened last time so that’s going to make it easier to compromise,” he said.

Contact Liz Skalka at lskalka@theblade.com, 419-724-6199, or on Twitter @lizskalka.

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