WOOSTER, Ohio — The countdown is on until Sept. 30, when the nation’s farm bill — last approved in 2008 — is set to expire.
The U.S. Senate approved a bipartisan five-year farm bill June 21, and the House Committee on Agriculture passed its version of the bill July 12 with a vote of 35 in favor and 11 opposed.
But the bill has yet to be taken up by the full House, which is now on recess until Sept. 10. The House would have about 20 days to pass the bill if it plans to approve something before the current bill expires.
In the short-term, the House has passed a disaster assistance package called the Agricultural Disaster Assistance Act of 2012, to help farmers who are facing significant financial loss as a result of this year’s record-setting drought.
The disaster bill is not a replacement for the farm bill, House Ag Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said after the vote.
“This is not a long-term solution, but it takes care of the problem until we can get a five-year farm bill on the books and put those policies in place,” Lucas said in a statement to media. “I am committed to giving certainty to our farmers and I plan to work toward that goal when we return in September.”
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said a long-term plan is essential because farmers need long-term certainty.
“If they [House] just want to do a one-year, that doesn’t get us to where we need to go,” he said during a media conference call Aug. 1.
Brown and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack spoke about the importance of a full farm bill Aug. 3 at the Ohio State Fair. If the farm bill isn’t passed by Sept. 30, Brown said it probably won’t get done until after elections and will become entangled with other discussions — like taxes, unemployment and budget cuts.
More cuts to farming
It will likely mean even deeper cuts to the farm programs, if the bill is delayed.
Those “risks to rural America are too great,” Vilsack said, adding it’s “a serious risk if this thing gets mixed up in the larger discussion about across-the-board cuts and defense spending and tax cuts. I guarantee you rural America will rue the day the House didn’t take action.”
U.S. Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio, said passing a farm bill before Sept. 30 “is a priority.” He recently visited with farmers in northwest Ohio, who are experiencing some of the state’s worst drought conditions.
“As one of the largest agricultural districts in the state, many farmers have expressed the need for stability to make planning decisions,” he told Farm and Dairy in an email. “Disasters, such as the drought, are inevitable and unpredictable, but knowing what will be available to farmers will help to mitigate the impacts of harsh farming conditions.”
The nation’s largest crop and livestock organizations have expressed frustration over the farm bill uncertainty, and some say the disaster package is a political tool.
In a letter to Congressional leaders, dated Aug. 2, farm organizations said they “do not oppose passage of a disaster assistance bill, but note that almost identical provisions to retroactively extend these four programs are included in the Senate-passed farm bill and the bill reported by the House Agriculture Committee. …
“It is imperative that we pass a comprehensive, long-term farm bill. Farmers and ranchers always face decisions that carry very serious financial ramifications, such as planting a crop, buying land or building a herd, and we need clear and confident signals from our lawmakers.”
Roger Johnson, president of National Farmers Union, said all of the programs in the disaster bill could be extended for the full life of the 2012 farm bill, if it were enacted.
“This duplicative step only wastes precious legislative time,” he said in a statement to media.
“This proposed disaster package is designed to make it appear as though Congress is taking action to help farmers in need before members go home to their districts this month. However, this ill-considered action only holds farmers hostage with uncertainty, and does nothing to address specialty crops, dairy, commodities and other non-insured produce.”
Fixing a problem
But Lucas, in his Aug. 2 testimony, insisted the disaster package was because the 2008 farm bill did not provide a final year of disaster assistance.
“I have heard people calling this ‘extending disaster assistance by a year,'” Lucas said. “No. What we are doing is fixing a problem. We are backfilling a hole or fixing a deficiency. … We have a drought. We don’t have a disaster program. I am here to provide a solution.”