Stuck with farm bill mess until 2018

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The low whimpering and muffled whining heard in farm country this month are not the gripes and grunts of corn and soybean growers trudging through 2015’s purgatory of under-$4 corn and less-than-$10 beans.

Instead, it’s the rising complaints of cranky farmers as they trudge out of dull meetings where land grant experts and Farm Service Agency officials have spent hours explaining farm program options under the 2014 farm bill.

Complex

Good grief, one farmer moaned to a reporter from Iowa Public Television’s Market-to-Market program after a lengthy, acronym-packed meeting, “It would be hard to make it more complex.”

The farmer, like most now diving into the program’s insurance-based options for the first time, went on to wonder if members of Congress, who spent nearly three years researching, wrangling and writing the law, actually “know anything about agriculture or farming themselves or if they just know a lot about economics.”

Another farmer, also plowing through his complicated options prior to the program’s late-March sign-up deadline, telephoned to asked, “Who wrote this mess?”

The answer to that short and simple question is short and simple: You did.

Sausage, anyone?

And here’s how, according to decades-long Capitol Hill farm policy hand who watched as the farm bill sausage was ground, tasted, re-ground, then re-tasted and reground again and again from 2011 through 2013 until it became a bland blob all could chew but few could stomach.

The legislative debate began with a skirmish over whether the new law would go big — devise a new “deep loss” program with available money — or go small, design an add-on program to the current crop insurance-centered law that might pay lesser amounts more often on what were called “shallow losses.”

The American Farm Bureau Federation pushed the “deep loss” option, but not very far. Commodity groups, which preferred the “shallow-loss” idea, quickly gained traction with Congress and the deep loss idea was deep-sixed.

No consensus in ag

That quick, clean win set the stage for tougher, longer fights over “how each group could maximize federal farm program payments for their own members,” says the observer.

“Once that started, it became obvious there would be no cohesive legislation.”

The fighting turned nasty.

“Every option offered by one commodity group was followed by a counter-option from another group. That sup-option brought sub-sub-options from the first group and on and on it went.”

The commodity groups then brought in local and regional land grant policy experts and ag economists and each university group developed their own “program calculator” to analyze every option and sub-option.

“Then it just became a battle of this calculator versus that calculator versus another calculator.”

What he means is if “the corn growers offered A for corn, then the wheat producers wanted B for wheat and, in turn, the cotton growers now needed C for cotton. The debate became a grinding search for that narrow piece of ground where everyone could stand.”

In the end, that search yielded “a completely Balkanized program that is now completely, utterly incoherent.”

Not forward-thinking

Additionally, says the old farm bill hand, the 2014 law “is anything but forward-thinking” — it’s built on commodity programs of the past, not the food needs of the future — “and it looks like an open invitation to the WTO (World Trade Organization) to challenge it on multiple levels.

“So the farmers are right; this bill is a mess. It was a mess when it was passed and it’s still a mess.”
OK, it’s a mess. We can fix this, right?

“Boy, while a lot of members on both the Senate and House ag committees say they’d like to change several parts of the bill — SNAP, say Republicans; crop insurance subsidies, say Democrats — no one has the energy or votes to do it,” says this handicapper. “This is it.”

In other words, this mess is your mess until the whole messy process begins again in 2018.

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Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com

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