SALEM, Ohio — Another year is about to end, and, like the past two years, the future of a new farm bill is unclear.
Congressional conferees were unable to reach an agreement before the start of their Thanksgiving recess, which began Nov. 21 for the House, and Nov. 22 in the Senate.
The conferees — 41 members — 29 House conferees and 12 from the Senate — first met to conference the House and Senate versions of the bill Oct. 30.
There was a sense of urgency throughout that meeting, in which several congressional leaders said their own credibility in Washington depends on getting a bill done.
When Congress returns in December, they’ll have less than two weeks to uphold their credibility, if they intend to get the bill passed into law by the end of the year. The House is scheduled to break Dec. 13.
For the bill to move out of conference, a majority of the House and Senate conferees must agree on the provisions, before the bill can be introduced on the Senate or House floor.
Failure to pass a farm bill by the end of the year would mean more uncertainty for farmers and rural America, and for the nation’s 47 million who receive food stamps.
What’s at stake
In a report released Nov. 21, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and White House staff warned that food prices could also skyrocket as certain ag laws would revert back to 1940s policy, doubling the price of milk and affecting other foods.
In a separate report published Nov. 14, Ohio State University Farm Policy Expert Carl Zulauf and Jonathan Coppess, clinical assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, gave a detailed summary of what might happen.
It appears the two biggest issues of controversy are cuts to food stamps, and farm safety nets — for crop and livestock farming. The House bill calls for about $39 billion in cuts to food stamps over 10 years, compared to just $4 billion by the Senate.
But both nutrition and farm safety nets are big issues.
“It is easy to point to nutrition programs as the likely reason that a new farm bill will not occur,” the authors wrote. “However, we think the farm safety net issues are just as, and maybe more divisive.”
A big concern is what type of risk management to offer dairy farmers. Both the House and Senate bill’s replace current dairy programs with a risk management program based on the margin difference between the price of milk and feed.
The difference is, the Senate contains a provision to control milk supply by encouraging supply reductions when margins are especially low.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has openly criticized the Senate plan, known as the Dairy Security Act — as a form of supply management. The House amended its version of the farm bill to include provisions of the Dairy Freedom Act — which provides margin protection but does not include supply management.
According to the report filed by Zulauf and Coppess, the two bills also differ on the structure of the margin program subsidy by herd size, with the House bill being more favorable to small farms than the Senate bill. This difference is part of a larger issue concerning how much should government subsidize risk programs for large farms.
Read Zulauf’s full policy brief.
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, who is a Democratic conferee from Ohio, said he supports the Senate version of dairy support. He said the dairy policy is one of the most controversial parts of the bill, and it may take a compromise in the end.
He spoke to reporters Nov. 20 during a press call with Jack Fisher, executive vice president of the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, and Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, the executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks.
Supporting food stamps
Their main topic was food stamps, which Brown said is an essential part of the farm bill.
“I won’t support a bill that goes after those in need and down on their luck,” he said.
Currently, one out of six Americans, or 47 million, receives food stamps.
“There is no debating that food stamp usage is at an all-time high,” said Hamler-Fugitt. “We are witnessing an unprecedented increase of hunger in Ohio.”
She said cuts to SNAP that went into effect Nov. 1 have already been deeply felt.
Fisher said the nation needs a safe, secure, adequate and abundant food supply. He also called for market-based programs.
“We want market based commodity programs,” he said. “We want to grow and plant food based on what consumers want, not what the government is going to pay.”
In their report on the conference, Zulauf and Coppess outline three most likely paths the bill will take: First, the conference committee could reach an agreement and the bill is enacted into law. Secondly, the committee does not reach an agreement, and the expired 2008 farm bill is once again extended.
Third, the committee does not reach an agreement and farm commodity support programs come to an end. The farm safety net would become the insurance program, meaning multiple-year losses would not be covered by the farm safety net.
The authors say the first two options appear most likely. They say there is equal probability conferees will get a bill done, as there is that they will not, and an extension would then be made.