Amid shutdown, what about the farm bill?

WOOSTER, Ohio — All the Washington talk lately has been on the shutdown, which began Oct. 1 after Congress failed to reach a budget to fund the federal government.

But buried within that battle is an issue with significant implications for rural America: the farm bill. The last bill, the 2008 farm bill, was extended to run through September, 2013.

Now that the extension has expired, uncertainty is the one thing farmers can be certain about.

As far as actions go, the Senate has appointed its conferees to conference the Senate version with members of the House. The Senate re-affirmed its appointees Oct. 1 and said it’s ready for a conference.

Uncertainty abounds

Senate Ag Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D- Mich., said the recent shutdown has created “a double whammy of uncertainty for the economy and for the 16 million Americans who work in this country because of agriculture.”

Stabenow said the Senate has twice passed a comprehensive, bipartisan farm bill that will create jobs, reform agriculture policy and reduce the deficit by tens of billions of dollars.

“It’s time to finally get this done,” she said.

The Senate conferees for the majority include: Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.; Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Max Baucus, D-Mont., Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.; and Michael Bennet, D-Colo.

It is unclear what the U.S. House of Representatives plans to do, or whether they plan to appoint conferees. House members passed separate pieces of the traditional farm bill, one to fund the farm titles (July 11), and a seperate bill to fund the nutrition programs (Sept. 19), while cutting food stamps by nearly $40 billion.

Tamara Hinton, communications director for the House Agriculture Committee, said the next step is for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to name his farm bill conferees.

She said she is “uncertain when that will take place, but it’s expected to be done in short order.”

Immediate action

National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson, and other farm group leaders, say it needs done now.

In an Oct. 2 letter to Boehner, Johnson said it’s up to the speaker to name his appointees and get the bill conferenced.

“The fate of the farm bill is now in your hands,” Johnson wrote. “This is an opportunity for you and the House to demonstrate that Congress is still able to get things done.”

Johnson, like most other farm organizations, said the farm bill is an important issue for the nation’s farmers, ranchers, fishermen, consumers and hungry citizens.

 Dates that matter?

Although Sept. 30 was the official farm bill expiration date, the end of the year could be more important, when milk policies could potentially revert back to the 1940s-era, causing a major price spike.

As for crop farmers, their funding is on a crop-year basis, so the current year’s crop is covered by last year’s farm bill extension.

Carl Zulauf, an agricultural economics professor in Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences, said we could see a bill that combines many different things.

“Based on what I am hearing and reading, it looks increasingly likely that we will see a bill that encompasses the spending resolutions for the 2014 (current) fiscal year and the debt ceiling increase,” he wrote in an email to Farm and Dairy. “It is therefore likely that we will see other items of legislation merged into this bill.  This farm bill could be one of those pieces of legislation.

“I think if this happens, the farm bill will likely be a one- or two-year extension (not a new farm bill) and I would expect some cut in the farm program spending baseline in order to help meet budget constraints, such as a reduction in direct payments. It would be hard, but not impossible, to write a new farm bill in this short of time, and given the other pressing aspects of such an encompassing legislation. If a farm bill extension is not included in the encompassing legislation, then I am not sure what to expect in regard to farm policy.”

Shutdown’s effect

Andrew Novakovich, agricultural economist and farm bill expert at Cornell University, said the shutdown itself does not affect passage of the next farm bill, but he said the shutdown does “add toxins to a political environment in which compromise feels almost impossible.”

There will, inevitably, be consequences from the shutdown.

“A large number of federal workers will get unpaid leave, visitors to D.C. and national parks will find doors barred shut, and all kinds of folks and businesses will find out how much we rely on a myriad of federal reports that are easy to take for granted,” he said.

“Retirement programs that calculate benefits based on changes to the Consumer Price Index won’t have a new estimate of changes to consumer prices. CME futures markets that cash settle against a federal estimated price won’t have a cash price announced. Farmers that had planned to finish that paperwork in their local FSA office will find the door locked.”

About the Author

Chris Kick lives in Wooster, Ohio. An American FFA Degree recipient, he holds a bachelor’s in creative writing from Ashland University. He spends his free time on his grandparents’ farms in Wayne and Holmes counties. More Stories by Chris Kick

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