As we say goodbye to 2017 and look forward to 2018, there are several items on the agenda for agriculture that merit close attention. A partial list may start with the current farm outlook and the pending 2018 farm bill, but numerous other issues exist. These include trade policy, food, policy, conservation and environmental policy, energy and bioenergy policy, and of course, taxes and budget issues as well.
• Farm outlook. The farm outlook might best be described as stabilizing, but not promising. In late November, USDA updated national farm income estimates with a forecast of $63.4 billion for 2017. That is up almost $2 billion from the estimate for 2016, but only after the 2016 estimate was dropped substantially in August from the previous estimates back in February.
UDSA also released the initial projections for various commodities that will form the basis of its annual long-run estimates in February. Using corn as an illustration, the projections suggest a long, slow climb for prices from the current marketing year estimate of $3.20 per bushel to only $3.60 by 2027.
Now, by nature, the projections can't really predict any shocks to the market and tend to show only modest growth year over year. But absent any major short-term surprises in production or long-term surprises in demand, it is difficult to draw a scenario where the ag sector doesn't fundamentally live with current price levels for the foreseeable future.
• Farm bill. Into that cloudy, but at least not worsening, outlook comes a farm bill due in September with major implications for agricultural producers. While hearings have been going on for months to solicit feedback on current programs and priorities for the future, the real debate is about to begin as both House and Senate agricultural committees appear set to move legislation in early 2018. There are numerous issues begging for action and funding, including commodity program details for the Agricultural Risk Coverage (ARC) program, the cotton program, and the dairy program, as well as other priorities including research and animal disease management funding.
However, the budget picture for the farm bill has been characterized as a baseline bill at best, meaning no new money. Furthermore, the political balance between food and farm interests suggests no shift of food assistance funding toward farm programs, thus the challenge for any of the current priorities will be the question of where funding comes from for any policy fix. After nutrition (food assistance), the biggest spending lines in the farm bill are crop insurance commodities and conservation.
While some crop insurance and conservation spending has been identified or targeted, producers and various interests have just as quickly stood up to protect current investments in those programs, so finding funding from anywhere within the existing program will be a major challenge.
• Trade. Beyond the farm economy and the farm bill, perhaps the biggest dot on the ag radar is the trade outlook — not explicitly the economic outlook for trade, but rather the outlook for trade policy. In the past 12 months, agriculture has seen some gains in trade access or re-entry into important markets, but it has also seen the United States exit the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement and initiate a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the threat of withdrawing from that agreement as well. The uncertainty over trade negotiations and agreements may be as challenging as the actual ramifications of any ultimate outcomes.
TPP was a major component of a U.S. policy focus on Asia and the Pacific Rim with the United States as a political and economic leader. To the surprise of some, the withdrawal of the United States has not meant the certain death of the TPP agreement. At the moment, the remaining 11 countries in the TPP (now referred to as the TPP-11) are continuing discussions toward a final agreement that would benefit all countries involved and may yet make room for the United States to return at a future point, but likely not with the same commitments and concessions that had been offered to the United States previously.
The concerns over the current renegotiation of NAFTA also center on the potential harm to U.S. trade if the agreement was killed. A hard negotiating line from the administration has continued to raise that fear, although most ag groups are hoping that it is more a negotiating tactic than a real threat. Stronger economic growth across the globe plus continued bilateral trade discussions may help the trade picture for agriculture, but it remains a source of concern with the uncertainty over major negotiations and agreements.
• Food. Beyond the debate over the farm bill and nutrition (food assistance) spending, the larger food policy fight in the year ahead appears to be a continuing battle over technology and production methods. USDA is still working toward updated rules and guidelines for both regulating biotechnology and also labeling or disclosing biotechnology content in food products. A major challenge ahead is how to regulate or label products made through new biotech methods like gene editing, which can differ tremendously from existing biotechnology by deleting or silencing existing genes to produce desirable traits as opposed to introducing genes from another species. While the science of the two processes may be substantially different, the distinction between the two by consumers and policymakers may be more challenging. Further challenges ahead include whether the rules will actually be written in the policy arena or whether they will effectively be written in the marketplace and the corporate boardroom to respond to consumer preferences.
• Conservation and the environment. On the conservation and environmental front, agricultural producers look ready for further regulatory relief in the coming year. The recent proposal to extend the previous Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule while court cases are resolved and a new rule can be written offers some certainly for producers and landowners in the short run and the promise of further regulatory relief in the long run.
Other regulatory relief has come at least temporarily for emissions reporting from livestock operations and transportation rules for agriculture. However, over the longer run, the outlook may be more for slower growth in further regulations as opposed to substantial relief from existing regulations as agriculture continues to face more of the regulatory burden of other industries over time.
• Energy and bioenergy. The vacillations in perceived Environmental Protection Agency policy for bioenergy over much of 2017 were presumably resolved for now with the announcement of 2018 renewable volume obligations for fuel usage at the end of November (pending at the time of this writing). However, with political challenges both for and against current renewable fuel policies, it looks to be a continual challenge into 2018 to assess the long-run outlook and policy framework for the bioenergy sector.
• Taxes and budget. Tax reform legislation was also moving through Congress at the time of this writing, awaiting action in the Senate before any compromise legislation could be finalized or passed into law. While some were holding out the possibility of a final bill before the end of 2017, many expected it may extend into early 2018. If it hasn't happened already, it seems likely that a tax bill will make it across the finish line sometime soon, if for no other reason than it would represent the first major policy accomplishment of the current Congress and administration. Looking ahead, any tax changes will obviously affect taxpayers and tax management decisions going forward.
Politically, it may also be that tax reform is a major driver for further efforts on budget reform. The tax legislation appears to lead to larger budget deficits unless and until economic growth spurred by the changes contributes more tax revenues back to the government than the legislation takes away. But if it doesn't, the specter of larger deficits and increased growth in the federal debt could drive more aggressive budget cuts in the coming year and years.
On this issue is a parallel between national and state policy that cannot be overlooked. While the state budget is by constitutional mandate a balanced budget, the pressure for state tax relief from almost all corners, particularly property tax payers in agriculture, could mean further challenges and cuts in the rest of the state budget. There is always a battle between taxes and spending and the appropriate levels of each, and that is not likely to go away or get resolved easily or soon.
Lubben is an Extension policy specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.