Nebraska's Largest Ag Organizations on Expectations Under Biden

Jan. 22, 2021, 3 p.m. ·

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The last four years under the Trump administration have been eventful for Nebraska farmers. From low commodity prices, to trade wars, and now, unprecedented government subsidies, it has been a wild time to be in the agriculture industry.

Mark McHargue is president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau, a conservative policy organization representing more than 61,000 member families. McHargue takes over the role from former president Steve Nelson, who retired last year. He says, compared to early 2016, he is hopeful for the future of Nebraska agriculture with commodity prices, like corn, increasing drastically.

“If you would go survey our AG members across Nebraska ... I would say (they’re) pretty optimistic relative to midsummer just from potential profitability,” said McHargue.

John Hansen is President of the Nebraska Farm Union, a more progressive organization representing over 4,000 member families. He agrees higher commodity prices have farmers across the state, at least in the short term, happy if a bit bewildered.

“We're all scratching our heads and smiling, but not real sure that they're going to continue, but they are a welcome surprise,” said Hansen.

With increasing commodity prices combined with government subsidies in the wake of trade wars and relief funding due to the pandemic, 2020 was a profitable year for many farmers. An estimated 40% of farmer’s income came from the government last year.

Looking ahead to the next four years under the Biden administration, in many respects, the organizations have similar goals despite their separate political bents.

Both men say they would like to see steadier trade relations with trade partners like China, clarified rules on biofuels like ethanol and quality, and improved rural broadband.

"The ag economy can’t grow. In my opinion, to the degree that it needs to without good communication and broadband,” said McHargue. “That’s going to be probably the biggest one on my list.”

With all the common ground, one might think the next four years may be an era of bipartisanship among ag policymakers. Brad Lubben is an Extension Associate Professor of Agriculture Economics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and says that's not likely.

“I don't know that we can promise there will be bipartisan coalition and progress either in Washington or across the country,” said Lubben. “There's an awful lot of healing or an awful lot of reconciliation to do to imagine that there's actually a middle ground here for moderates of either party.”

What Lubben does expect: a renewed focus on racial and environmental justice.

“In the agricultural policy arena, that might be most impactful in terms of a look at food assistance and food security policy relative to farm assistance. There are also questions of how to address past discrimination and in some circles that means looking for reparations or some,” said Lubben. “We'll see if those kinds of programs come forward in agriculture and other sectors.”

Lubben says with Democratic in control of the White House and Congress, a progressive policy agenda is to be expected as Democrats assume leadership roles. In the ag world, that shift will likely fall under the Direction of Ag Secretary nominee Tom Vilsack, who would be taking over from Sonny Perdue. If confirmed, it would be Vilsack’s second time in the role after serving as Ag Secretary in the Obama administration.

“Vilsack just simply seems to be maybe the most acceptable, least objectionable candidate for that post,” said Ludden. “It pays to be in the middle.”

As to who will get the President’s ear, Hansen says a democratic administration means a shift in power in favor of farmer’s unions across the country.

“We have new folks to get to know, but we also have a longstanding, positive relation with Tom Vilsack, but also Joe Biden,” said Hansen, who went on to say he has known President Biden for decades.

McHargue has given some thought to the new balance of power and Washington and says his goal will be to have a constructive relationship with the Biden administration while not compromising the organization's more conservative values.

"I think... there's no question rural America appreciated a number of things that the Trump administration has done in a number of different arenas, but it will be very important that we move ahead,” said McHargue.

“Just like we've always done in the past, (we will) work with the next administration.”

Brad Lubben says seeking a spot at the table is a wise strategy, especially as consequential discussions around carbon tax credits and other climate policies take on a new life. Also, there is a new Farm Bill due in 2023.

“If you see a broad, movement and general direction on climate policy like we seem to be seeing at the moment, then... you have to figure out where you can effectively play a part and not fight it the whole way,” said Lubben. “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”