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Podcast: Sen. Pat Roberts on His Past and Agriculture’s Future

December 14, 2020

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts is leaving Congress after 40 years in January. The only person to lead both the House and Senate agriculture committees takes with him a wealth of wisdom in agriculture policy – but also holds optimism for agriculture’s ability to get things done in an environment of difficult challenges.

“I would just say that I am very confident that the people who will be taking my place, they have a lot of experience,” Roberts said in a Dairy Defined interview released today. “They’re good folks. I think the same attempt, at least, with regards to making it bipartisan, will continue.”

Roberts, who first came to Washington as a congressional staffer a half-century ago, also reflects on the two farm bills he led — 1996’s Freedom to Farm law and the 2018 bill — as well as one area where he wished he could have done more: his leadership of the Senate Intelligence Committee during the Iraq War. He also said he doesn’t consider his career to be over – without revealing plans, he said that when it comes to farm policy, “I intend to have my finger in the pie somewhere.”

To listen to the full discussion, click here. You can also find this and other NMPF podcasts on iHeartRadio, Apple Podcasts, SpotifySoundCloud and Google Play. Broadcast outlets may use the MP3 file. Please attribute information to NMPF.


Alan Bjerga: Hello, and welcome to the Dairy Defined podcast. Our guest today needs no introduction, but we’ll try. Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, former chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Kansas Republican, Pat Roberts, has made his mark and a half century in Washington and will leave his mark when he leaves the Senate upon his retirement in January. Senator Roberts, thank you for joining us today.

Pat Roberts: My pleasure.

Alan Bjerga: Senator, you are leaving the Senate at an unusually turbulent time. That’s a characterization that can be overdone, but the last election cycle was unique. Of course, we have the pandemic. How does this turbulent moment compare to other turbulent moments of your career?

Pat Roberts: I would say these are not the worst of times. I know that people think they are. I don’t know how many people come up to me and say, “Why can’t you folks back there quit fighting and get something done?” And I respond by saying, “Well, in the agriculture committee, we’re a little different. We get along.” We have the same constituency and I have the good fortune to have a very good relationship with my ranking member. I used to be her ranking member, this was not our first rodeo, and I’m talking about Deb Stabenow. I think I could say, fairly safely, that she’s more of a liberal Democrat and I’m a conservative Republican, but we both knew with regards to ag, including dairy, by the way, big time. Dairy’s always there in the 11th hour and 59th minute trying to get something worked out more especially with Pat Leahy.

But we know that that is primary. We have to get a farm bill done. So whatever I want and whatever Deb wanted, or anybody else on the committee, is secondary to that goal. We also know we have to get 60 votes. I think we’re pretty good at that. And we got a farm bill down in the Senate. It took us about a year. I went to Michigan State, wore green and white. She went to K State and wore purple. We went all over the countryside. Crop insurance was the number one issue that everybody talked about. Without crop insurance during these very difficult times where our cost of production has been below, below, below, below for four or five years, and a very tough time and agriculture. So we knew we had to pass a farm bill and we did that. We got 86 votes on the conference report, pardon me, 87.

I was trying to get 90. And I was talking to some recalcitrant Republicans who, from an ideological standpoint were just opposed to farm bills and said, “Come on guys, you can at least give me two votes.” I think Mitch McConnell was looking at me and said, “My Lord, you have 87 votes. What do you want?” And I said, “I want justice.” He says, “You don’t want justice. You want blood.”

Being a Marine, why, you don’t give up. You take the hill. And if you can take the hill twice, why, that’s what we want to do. So we got a farm bill done. And I think that stands as a good example of how we have worked together and continue to work together on the Agriculture Committee. It can be done. Our biggest impediment, I think, is we don’t know one another. We come in here on a Monday night and vote, leave on a Thursday and there’s not too many social activities that you, where you can get together.

The codels are grounded, of course, with COVID and a lot of other social activities. A lot of people just adhere to whatever balkanization they have in their district or their state, and that proves a problem. Because if you don’t know somebody, you tend to ignore what they’re saying more, especially if they make partisan speeches on the floor. I used to do that. And then I realized that when you did that, when you brought up an amendment, some people might not even know who you are and they just vote no. So I quit that.

Alan Bjerga: You have two farm bills to your name, as the only person to chair both the House and Senate agriculture committee, Freedom to Farm in 1996 and the Agriculture Improvement act of 2018, which you were just speaking of. What do you see as the legacy of Freedom to Farm? And what did you take away from that first experience that helped you guide the next time around?

Pat Roberts: Yeah, it was so damn tough. 40 years of ag program policy, we turned it on his head and it was circumstantial. Everything was certain in the ag universe at that particular time, we were in the Gingrich Revolution. John Kasich was the budget guy. He wanted to get us $6 billion, the average cost there during that time, it was about $18 billion. And I said that we can’t write a farm bill with that. He turned it around and finally gave us nine. I went back, I was going back, repeatedly, to talk to my four county wheat growers and the Farm Bureau and soybean folks and the corn folks, everybody, and saying we’re having a little bit of trouble here with the amount of money that we have available to us because of the budget.

Well, a lot of people said, “Just increase the budget, go talk to him, Pat.” I said, “Well, that’s a little different ball game this time.” And [Leon Taurline 00:05:28], who is from east of Dodge, he has since passed away, but he was a wonderful farmer. And he stood up in the back, he says, “I’m tired of loan rates. I am tired of set asides. I’m tired of paying people not to grow anything. I’m tired of…” Went through the whole rigamarole of all the regulations and everything that was government controlled with regards to agriculture. He said, “Pat, just give me the freedom to farm my place, my ground. I know what to do.” And he says, “I’ll plant for the market. Just give me freedom to farm.” Bingo. That’s where that came from.

Of course, I took it back to staff. Staff, of course, thought that they did it. And I thought I did it, but it was Leon Taurline, which proves a point. It’s exceedingly important you sit on the wagon, talk with farmers that you trust, and listen to them. And at that particular time that started off with Freedom to Farm. We still have that. Farmers do not have a mandate to set aside things or to pay farmers or to add a storage or put grain in bins where there might not be any grain and all of that.

We still have the Freedom to Farm. There are those who have talked about a set aside during these very tough times with COVID. That’s a bad, bad road to take. Your competitors will always increase their production by more than you set aside, you don’t gain much except government payments and a lot of regulations. It was a very unique time. We were able to do things that perhaps we couldn’t have done at any other time, but I was very proud of the fact that we finally got it passed after originally not getting it passed. And it was hard. It was hard. It was a whole year and a half before we got the doggone thing done. You just have to be like the Marines. We Marines take the hill. We don’t give up, and we just keep fighting. Back then it was a year and a half. This one was about a year.

Alan Bjerga: I’ve been interviewing you since the year 2000. And as we were talking about before this call, one of the first articles I wrote for the Wichita Eagle in Washington was whether health issues would keep you from running for reelection in 2002. What’s the secret to a half century of longevity and relevance in Washington policy discussions?

Pat Roberts: I came to Washington to be here one year, Senator Frank called me. I was out in Arizona. I was out of the Marine Corps and I was trying to be the Paul Harvey of Arizona or the William Allen White of Arizona, something. I had a weekly newspaper. I had a morning news program called the Scottsdale Roundup with KWBY Cowboy. So I thought I was on my way to really some kind of a career. I was single. I thought a bachelor was a man who never made the same mistake once. And then the Senator called and said, “Would you be interested in coming back and being my chief of staff?” in that his chief of staff left for the Interstate Commerce Commission appointed by LBJ. Well, gosh, that’s something you can’t turn down.

So I went back to Washington and I worked for him for two years, met Frankie. That was the end of bachelorhood. We started out, she was working on the Hill for Strom Thurmond. I was working for Frank Carlson. That’s how we met. And then for Keith Sebelius for 12. And then some of the stalwarts at the GOP out there said, “You ought to go to consider running.” Frankie said, “That’s what you’ve always wanted to do anyway.” So that’s what we did. And 24 elections, you only lose one and you’re out. So I’m very proud of that record. If there was a name on the ballot, I’m counting that. I never dreamed I would… I thought I’d be there two years and I’d go back to Arizona or Kansas, probably Kansas. And that didn’t happen. Although I did go back to Kansas in my capacity as a staffer, and then also as a member of both House and Senate. So I’ve had a wonderful career. I’ll say this, there are no self-made men or women in public office. It’s your friends who make you what you are.

Alan Bjerga: In your career. If you had the chance, what would be your biggest do-over and what do you wish you could have done more of?

Pat Roberts: I enjoyed the Intelligence Committee a lot. I was chairman there for four years. We were the ones that conducted that inquiry i.e. investigation that led to the discovery of a worldwide intelligence failure as to whether or not Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. I would have liked to stayed on the committee, but we flipped and the Democrats were in control. They were not exactly the greatest partners in the world when we were in control. And so I decided I would seek other pastures and I went to the finance committee. The leadership allowed me to do that. I had a passion for the Intelligence Committee. I wish I could have spent more time there.

Alan Bjerga: What lessons did you learn?

Pat Roberts: Well, Saddam was a bad guy regardless, and he thought he had a WMD, ironically. One Republican Guard unit thought the other one had it, the other one thought the other one had. I don’t think anybody told him he didn’t. If they did, they’d have probably gone out feet first. Given that, and then given what he had done in the past, and would be continuing to do, it probably was justified. I don’t know whether or not we would have had the support in the Congress had we known what we knew after a year’s investigation. But I will say this, if you leave an area where there’s been a problem like Afghanistan today, and you’re withdrawing troops, you leave a void. And if it’s an area where they still have a lot of problems, and that’s the case with Afghanistan, bad people fill it. And then you end up with a bigger problem down the road. It’s a difficult kind of decision to make given where we are and how many troops we have, et cetera, et cetera.

Alan Bjerga: Well, you talk about talking to farmers and, and finding solutions for agriculture issues, but the agriculture community has a lot of challenges. And a lot of challenges actually fall outside the ag Committee’s formal jurisdiction now. As you depart, what advice do you have for the members taking over the ag Committee about how to make agriculture’s voice heard in all areas? And how do you do that in a time when legislation itself moves less often?

Pat Roberts: Well, I would just say that I am very confident that the people who will be taking my place, they have a lot of experience. They’re good folks. I think the same attempt, at least, with regards to making it bi-partisan will continue. And you just have to work as hard as you possibly can. We have a new administration. I think, obviously, they’re going to be concentrating more on climate change and I hope it’s not everything, and that so-called manifesto with the Green New Deal and all of that. But I’m a little worried about going back to re-regulation and government controls on agricultural production. So I don’t think that’s where the committee wants to go. I think we will continue to do our work. And I think we have some very good people that will be taking over. And I intend to have my finger in the pie somewhere.

Alan Bjerga: What challenges do you see lying ahead for the congressional Agriculture Committees next year? Agriculture is always evolving. Kansas is even rising as a dairy state. We got to give a plug for that.

Pat Roberts: We’re one of the fastest growing, 300 dairy farms, home to 160,000 milk cows. We’re now number 16 and going up. There’s a 235 million dairy [inaudible 00:13:15] in Garden city, Kansas, America. That went to online 2017. I was there, 66 new jobs to the area. It processes 84 truck loads of raw milk, 4 million pounds per day from dairy farms in southwest Kansas. Since ’94, milk production in Kansas has doubled a $1 billion industry. Since 2008, Kansas dairies have increased milk production by 45%. 75% of all Kansas milk is now processed within the state.

Alan Bjerga: I applaud you knowing your audience, Senator. [crosstalk 00:13:52] So what do you see as some of the challenges for the committee ahead?

Pat Roberts: Well, I think right off the bat, when you’re considering a new farm bill, it’s a little early to be doing that, we have legislation that has to be passed, that’s the Livestock Mandatory Inspection Program or Reporting Program, pardon me. The child nutrition reauthorization to come out, the futures trading commission reauthorization, and then the preparation for the next farm bill. The thing that I worry about the most is crop insurance, Bob Kerrey And I expanded that way back in the day. That saved a lot of farmers. It’s absolutely essential. It’s the number one issue that farmers bring up across the country when you go out and visit with them prior to a farm bill. There are people in the Congress who would like to use the crop insurance program for a bank. Matter of fact, there’s a lot of farm programs that they’d like to use for a bank and for whatever purpose they may have.

And we’ve always been able to stave that off. The first week of the Trump administration, I got in to see the President, and he asked what he could do for me. And I said, “Save crop insurance. Save it and improve it. Don’t cut it.” And he said, “All right.” And I said, “You’re doing that in your budget right off the bat. That’s got farmers worried.”

So he got Mick Mulvaney on the line and they indicated that… Then he forgot my name and said, “Farm guy here says, don’t cut crop insurance.” Well, then he says, “That would be a Senator Roberts.” And he said, “Yes, I think it is.” And he said, “We’re not cutting. It were reforming it.” Whereupon I described that statement as a lot of what we have in our Dodge city feedlots. And let the President know that we shouldn’t be doing that. Now, one thing about it is presidents’ budgets are a talking point. We have our own budgets and we adhere to that. They have OMB, we have CBO. So I wasn’t that worried, but it was in the budget and I did want to, at least, try to educate the President to the importance of the crop insurance program. And then the good thing was he called me “Farm Guy” for the next two years.

Alan Bjerga: You mentioned earlier that you hoped to play some sort of role in the next farm bill process. Do you have any tip off of any future plans? Your former colleague in the delegation, Senator Dole, has shown a post Senate career can be pretty long even after decades of service.

Pat Roberts: Well, if you live to be 97, I think you can withstand about anything. And he’s in good health. And I call him every week and I love the guy and he’s been a great mentor and he’s still got that sharp sense of humor. But I don’t know, we’re going to wait until afterwards, after we get out to make any decisions. That’s what all the advice says. Don’t make quick decisions. You may end up more busy than you were as a Senator. You don’t want to do that. So we’ll see. And then if I say anything specific that I might be interested in, I have to report it to the ethics committee at which I was chairman. And I’ve been on it for 24 years. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve that. With that, I’m going to have to take off and vote. I appreciate the opportunity. Go dairy. Alan, don’t be a stranger.

Alan Bjerga: Thank you, Senator.

Pat Roberts: Thank you.

Alan Bjerga: That’s it for today’s podcast for more Dairy Defines, we’re on Apple Podcast, Spotify, SoundCloud, Google Play, and iHeartRadio under the podcast name Dairy Defined, and you can read the Wichita Eagle on Thanks for joining us and have a great week.