Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Hello, and welcome to the Dairy Defined Podcast. As spring turns to summer, lawmakers are thinking about the fall. It’s an election year and the ones that end in two are always special as they’re the first ones under new congressional districts. That affects who sits in Congress, and this year it may affect who controls Congress. And that can affect who writes the Farm Bill. It’s all connected. And explaining and updating us is NMPF, Senior Vice President for Government Relations, Paul Bleiberg. Good having you here, Paul.
Paul Bleiberg, NMPF: Thanks for having me on. Always good to be here.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: So let’s take the last element first: the Farm Bill. Always of interest. What’s the latest?
Paul Bleiberg, NMPF: Right now, the House and Senate Agriculture Committees are starting the process of looking at current Farm Bill policy and evaluating what’s working well and what isn’t working well. The Farm Bill, of course, doesn’t expire until September of 2023, but there’s a lot of work that needs to be done before the bill can actually be written by both chambers, negotiated and signed into law. So a number of oversight hearings have occurred over the last several months. We’ve been very fortunate, National Milk, to be invited by the House and Senate ag committees to partake in a number of those hearings. We had producers participate in a number of contexts. We had Melvin Medeiros, who’s a California producer on our executive committee, testifying that sustainability in the livestock sector and some of our needs in the conservation space. We had Ashley Kennedy from Michigan Milk testify at a field hearing of the Senate Agriculture Committee in Michigan, talking about what’s working well in the Dairy Margin Coverage Program. And some of the challenges we’re working through right now on the federal milk marketing order side.
And our partner organization, U.S. Dairy Export Council was featured at a House hearing on the trade title of the Farm Bill and President and CEO, Krysta Harden spoke in April as well. In just a week, we’re going to have Lolly Lesher, a Pennsylvania dairy farmer testifying at the House Agriculture Committee talking about the state of the dairy economy. And she’s going to be able to give a great perspective again, on issues like the Dairy Margin Coverage Program, federal orders, and a number of other areas. So a lot of that stakeholder outreach is going on right now, both publicly in hearings and behind the scenes as well, as we all start to figure out what improvements do we need to see in the next Farm Bill. It’s an important opportunity given that it only does come up every so often.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: It does only come up every so often and obviously other things happen. So is the Farm Bill the only way that things get done in agriculture? I would think you’re not just sitting around these days waiting for it.
Paul Bleiberg, NMPF: No, that’s a great question. And actually the longer I’ve worked in agriculture policy, the more committees we work with, and the larger our tentacles seem to extend in the different areas that years ago, I never would’ve imagined we work on. I think the Farm Bill is still very much a central issue for agriculture because it covers so many different policy areas. An interesting comparison to me is transportation, where I’ve spent some time. That committee divides up all of its work into multiple different authorizations. The agriculture committees kind of do all of it together in the Farm Bill for the most part. And so it is really a core policy opportunity for everybody in ag, no matter what commodity you’re working on or what segment of the industry you’re working on.
But now whether it’s labor, or trade, or nutrition, or sustainability, or labeling, or tax policy, there are ag issues going on, both in Congress and in the administration in between farm bills that don’t have anything to do with farm bill implementation. And sometimes you forget that the Farm Bill is even a thing when you’re in the thick of 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic, and you’re working on 6 different completely unrelated topics, all very important, but all different from the Farm Bill.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Now to get to a farm bill, of course we have to know who’s writing it. What’s that looking like for next year?
Paul Bleiberg, NMPF: Well, the key players for the Farm Bill will probably be the same four people that are leading the agriculture committees today. So in the House, that’s David Scott and GT Thompson, in the Senate it’s Debbie Stabenow and John Boozman. All four of them, well, Senator Stabenow doesn’t have an election this fall, but the other three are all expected to be reelected this fall, I think. And there’s not really much question about that, that all four of them will still be there. Who’s in the chair role versus the ranking member role could change depending on the outcome of the election. But given that farm bills are historically a broadly bipartisan endeavor, all four players have a major role. And so I think the four people that’ll be leading the process are really set.
However, having worked for members of the agriculture committees before, I can attest that being an individual member of the committee still affords you a great opportunity to influence policy as well. And that’s where we may see some change in both the House and the Senate. You have a number of committee members in both chambers that are up for reelection in competitive races. And so the committees will be fully populated next January in advance of the process. We may see some new members filling out the new runs, the lower rungs, if you will, in terms of seniority of the committee. So while the top players who will be leading the process are really set, a lot of the participants are still yet to be known.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: And that brings us to the dairymander. Tell us a little bit about how you’ve been forecasting power in the House of Representatives.
Paul Bleiberg, NMPF: Well, years ago when I was a congressional staffer and looking at redistricting a decade ago, it came upon me this idea that instead of gerrymandering a congressional district to get one party or another, or some group in advantage, you could dairymander and you could draw the top milk counties into one district, no matter what shape it took to have as large a dairy producing district as you could. And while I’ve had a lot of fun looking at different maps and combinations, what I’ve been trying to do in the last several months as the 2022 redistricting process that happens every decade comes to a conclusion is figure out how does dairy’s footprint get impacted by the congressional map? There are several states, whether we talk about Michigan, or Florida, or Oregon, or California, as examples, where you may have members of Congress today that represent a sizable portion of dairy farmers or processing infrastructure that won’t after the new maps.
And on the flip side, you’re going to have current members and new members coming in that will have a large dairy footprint in their districts that didn’t before. And what I’m excited about is I think we’ll maintain the relationships with the people that have always been allies and partners even if their districts change somewhat. But I’m excited about building out that group further. There may be some members that have served in the House for a number of years, but haven’t had ag in their districts, or haven’t had a lot of dairy in their districts, and now they’re going to, and it’s a chance, no matter what committee they serve on. Given what I said before, we work on so many different issues, it’s a chance to rebuild new relationships in different parts of the country. And that’s what I’ve been working to analyze now as the field kind of wraps up on redistricting what that map looks like.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Anything else we should know as we head into campaign season and looking ahead toward a farm bill?
Paul Bleiberg, NMPF: I think you’re going to continue to see a lot of great discussion in the committees on the Farm Bill process. I mentioned a few that have already taken place and the one coming up in the House, but I’m sure there will be more yet this year. And then before we get to brass tax, there is that election that we’ll be looking forward to.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: All right, well, thank you for your time. This is Paul Bleiberg, the Senior Vice President for Government Relations at the National Milk Producers Federation. And that’s it for today’s podcast. For more on NMPF’s policy priorities, visit nmpf.org. And for more of the Dairy Defined Podcast, you can find and subscribe to it on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and Amazon Music under the podcast name, Dairy Defined. See you next time.