Farm Bill: Background and Reaction
Associated Press writer Mary Clare Jalonick reported yesterday that, “A patchwork extension of federal farm programs passed as part of a larger ‘fiscal cliff’ bill keeps the price of milk from rising but doesn’t include many of the goodies that farm-state lawmakers are used to getting for their rural districts.
“House and Senate Agriculture Committee leaders who spent more than a year working on a half-trillion-dollar, five-year farm bill that would keep subsidies flowing had to accept in the final hours a slimmed-down, nine-month extension of 2008 law with few extras for anyone.
“With the new Congress opening Thursday, they’ll have to start the farm bill process over again, most likely with even less money for agriculture programs this year and the recognition that farm interests have lost some of the political clout they once held.”
Yesterday’s article noted that, “Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said it even more bluntly on the Senate floor just after she learned that the bare-bones extension would be part of the fiscal cliff deal.
“‘There is no way to explain this,’ she said angrily as the deal came together New Year’s Eve. ‘None. There is absolutely no way to explain this other than agriculture is just not a priority.’”
Note that a replay of Chairwoman Stabenow’s remarks can be viewed here, at FarmPolicy.com Online.
Jonathan Knutson reported earlier this week at the Grand Forks Herald (N.D.) Online that, “Leaders of Upper Midewest farm groups are upset that Congress extended the current U.S. farm bill instead of passing a new one….‘Bad for family farmers and ranchers. Bad for the country,’ said Woody Barth, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union, of the extension.”
The article added that, “‘To have worked so long and to have the finish line in sight, and then not get it (a new farm bill) done, is very disappointing,’ said Erik Younggren, a Hallock, Minn., farmer and president of the National Association of Wheat Growers. ‘This extension isn’t what we wanted.’”
A report yesterday on NPR’s “Morning Edition” program by Jeremy Bernfeld (“Farmers Frustrated By Farm Bill Extension”) quoted Missouri dairy producer Alfred Brandt as saying, “Not surprised, but disappointed that they couldn’t come together on something, and just leaving a lot of people kind of out there on a limb, not knowing what’s going on.”
In the NPR report, Mr. Bernfeld noted that, “The farm bill is important to farmers like Brandt, because it sets all kinds of subsidy payments, disaster relief programs and conservation agendas. Farmers can’t control much about their business, so they crave certainty about the aspects they can control…[T]he extension hit dairy producers especially hard. Many say the safety net for them is outdated, and the new farm bill would have created a program to protect them against higher feed costs.”
On the other hand, a news release this week from the Dairy Business Association (DBA) indicated that, “[DBA] a statewide organization representing dairy farmers in Wisconsin, was extremely pleased with the extension of the 2008 Farm Bill that did not include the proposed dairy title; limiting milk production through a new government regulation.”
Also, a news release yesterday from the New England Farmers Union noted that, “New England farmers received a sour New Year’s surprise when a short-term extension of the 2008 farm bill was attached and passed along with the fiscal cliff deal. The terms of the deal originated with Minority Leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who along with Vice President Biden, sidestepped months of hard work by the Senate and House Agriculture Committees.
“‘This extension is a disaster for New England farmers and consumers,’ said Roger Noonan, President of the New England Farmers Union. ‘Programs that support renewable energy, farmers markets, beginning farmers, organic and specialty crop research were all stripped of mandatory funding for 2013,’ he said.”
Tom Lutey reported earlier this week at the Billings Gazette (Mont.) Online that, “Speaking of the farm bill extension, [Sen. Max Baucus (D., Mont.)] said it was necessary to get another nine months to pass a farm bill. With the Senate already passing on a bipartisan vote and the House having approved a bill, he expected the work of 2012 to steer a farm bill to completion by September.
“‘It’s a good starting point,’ Baucus said of the Senate version. ‘It passed by a large margin in the Senate.’
“But Baucus said he would begin the year by working on a separate bill to address livestock disaster programs, which were left out of the extension. After the worst drought in a half-century, American ranches finished 2012 dry and looking for help, but the programs designed to assist had expired.”
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) noted yesterday on the Senate floor that, “In the 113th Congress, it will be incumbent upon the House Republican leadership to allow bipartisan bills passed by the Senate to come to a vote before the full House of Representatives -not before the Republican members only, but before Democrats and Republicans, all 435 of them. Too many good pieces of legislation have died over the last two years because House Republican leaders insist on passing legislation with a majority of the Majority, that is, only Republicans. Democrats were ignored.
“For example, postal reform, the Violence Against Women Act, the farm bill and relief for the victims of Hurricane Sandy all passed the Senate on a bipartisan basis after extensive deliberation and debate. Yet the House failed to act on all four of these measures.”
In a teleconference with reporters yesterday, Sen. Mike Johanns (R., Neb.) pointed out that, “So our work on the farm bill was done by the Senate and actually got great reviews from the farm community, from the ag community. But now we’ve got to go forward. I — we do have some new members in the Senate. But having said that, I continue to be confident on the Senate side that we can mark up a bill, we can get it out of committee, and we can get it to the floor. I’m confident that we can get it passed.
“So, you know, I can speak for the Senate side, and I’m optimistic that we can get a bill done, and that’s what we need to do. We just can’t let any grass grow under our feet here. We’ve got to get to work on this right away. And we’ve got to get a farm bill out and get the Senate side done.
“Now, what we need, though, we need a partner in the House, we need a bill that we can take to conference and conference.”
Sen. Johanns was also a guest on yesterday’s AgriTalk radio program, where host Mike Adams asked, “So moving forward, there have been questions raised about the lack of clout or the lack of influence by agriculture and rural America. Secretary Vilsack has even brought that up. Does the fact that a farm bill was passed in the Senate and passed the House Ag Committee, and offered billions of dollars in savings at a time when that supposedly was the goal, to cut the deficit, and still couldn’t get a farm bill passed, what does that say about the influence of agriculture today in government?”
In response, Sen. Johanns stated in part that, “I did not agree with the Secretary’s analysis. I just…I like the Secretary. We’ve been friends for a long time. But people need to eat. They need to eat every day. And the reality of that is agriculture has enormous influence. I think it’s Chuck Grassley that always says we’re seven meals away from chaos, and there’s a lot of truth to that.
“I do think we need to redouble our efforts to tell that story, how important agriculture is to our nation’s economy, but to just our day-to-day living. I don’t think we’ve been marginalized. I think we’re hugely important, and I just think we need to tell that story.”
Also on AgriTalk yesterday, in a conversation with Dana Peterson, Chief Executive Officer of the National Association of Wheat Growers, Mike Adams noted that, “It’s almost unprecedented to have a bill pass out of the Ag Committee and to just be left lying there, I mean, not even being brought up for a vote in the House.”
Ms. Peterson indicated that, “It is very unprecedented, and it, to me, marks a needed change of strategy for us as an agricultural organization and our other colleagues here in Washington, D.C. Traditionally, we’ve been able to focus on the Ag Committee leadership, and once we got to that point, the committee passed out a bill that we would be able to go to the floor and be successful there.”
Ms. Peterson added that, “Because we’ve got a lot of folks coming to town new to the legislative process, new to the way things work here in Washington, D.C., and they don’t like it. They’re trying to find a new way to work amongst themselves, and we’ve got to find a new way to work with them.”
Urban C. Lehner, vice president of editorial operations for DTN noted in a blog update this week (“Ag Committees and Farm Groups Less and Less Relevant”) that, “Secretary Vilsack stirred up a fuss the other week with his comment that rural America has become ‘less and less relevant.’ Agree or not with that, it seems obvious farm groups and the congressional ag committees have become less and less relevant.
“Their handiwork was brushed aside in the farm-bill extension that Congress passed as part of its fiscal-cliff solution. Forget about reforming dairy policy, ending direct payments and extending specialty-crops or even some conservation programs. Whatever the merits of these changes, they were what the ag pros in Congress had agreed on, the compromises the committee chairs thought they’d worked out, compromises that they thought most farm groups could live with. The Biden-McConnell extension ignored them.”
The “Washington Insider” section of DTN noted in part yesterday (link requires subscription) that, “Observers are now suggesting that there was little chance that the Ag leaders proposals would be seriously considered for the fiscal package. The effort to include expensive ‘shallow loss’ revenue insurance programs and a number of other big ticket price support proposals scared many budget hawks, among others, who simply were unwilling to stand up to the criticism that the risk protections proposed for agriculture were too interventionist, and far more friendly than those available to other sectors, especially during a time of record or near record farm income.”
“Still, the extended debate likely will bring newly energized critics as the nation continues to struggle with its deficits. At the same time, the status of the congressional Ag leaders appears to have suffered severely from their brush with reality in recent days, an experience that may well have implications for the future debate,” the DTN item said.
Also with respect to the Farm Bill extension, a detailed update posted yesterday at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) Blog noted in part that, “There was no commodity subsidy reform, no disaster assistance, and no extension of funding for farmers markets, value-added agriculture, rural microenterprise assistance, beginning farmers, minority farmers, organic agriculture, renewable energy, and specialty crop and organic research.”
The NSAC item stated that, “For agriculture, there are a number of unknowns that will shape the 2013 Farm Bill debate. There are many new members of the Agriculture Committees, particularly in the House, which will change once again the dynamics and policy discussions. In March, the Congressional Budget Office will issue a new farm bill budget baseline that will be the yardstick against which new farm bill proposals will be measured. It will very likely show higher crop insurance subsidy spending, slightly lower food stamp spending, and lower Conservation Reserve Program spending, all of which will be factored into preparations for a new bill. It is also unclear how much savings the Committees will have to achieve in the new farm bill… Beyond those regional and ideological disparities lies the even bigger question of under what circumstances will the House GOP leadership ever bring a farm bill to the House floor for debate and voting.”
Farm Bill: Additional Details, Committee Dynamics
Chris Clayton reported yesterday at the DTN Ag Policy Blog that, “Officials with the USDA Farm Service Agency now are faced with deciding how to handle the Average Crop Revenue Election program for the 2013 crop.
“Millions of dollars in direct payments this year could hinge on USDA’s decision.
“ACRE was supposed to end last Sept. 30 with the sunset of the 2008 farm bill. If you remember specifics of the program, once a producer opted in a piece of ground, that tract could not be removed from ACRE until the end of the farm bill.”
Mr. Clayton added that, “With the nine-month extension now signed, questions have been raised over whether producers can sign up for ACRE or whether land already enrolled in the program must remain. For farmers, an option to leave ACRE could increase their direct payments for 2013.
“A spokesman for the Farm Service Agency responded Thursday that details on how to handle ACRE have not been worked out yet. ‘The staff is working on it and will present some ideas to the Administrator and Undersecretary soon for their reaction,’ the spokesman stated in an email.”
And, David Rogers reported yesterday at Politico that, “Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran on Thursday reclaimed the post of top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, restoring a Southern influence that could alter the course of writing a new farm bill in the coming months.
“Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts had said he intended to stay as ranking member and was prepared to force a vote challenging Cochran, who outranks him in seniority. But at a brief caucus of the committee Republicans Thursday afternoon, Roberts moved a motion in favor of Cochran rather than ‘roiling the waters’ any further.”
Mr. Rogers pointed out that, “Roberts’s voice has made him a frequent thorn in the side of the South since he has been one of the leading opponents of target price supports important to rice, peanut and wheat producers from the region.
“Southern producers complained bitterly last summer when the Senate adopted a five-year farm bill that bore Roberts’s stamp and leaned heavily toward revenue insurance options to replace the current system of direct cash payments to growers.”
Erik Wasson reported yesterday at The Hill’s On the Money Blog that, “The move makes it more likely that the new five-year farm bill the committee is crafting will have more provisions for southern crops.”
In an update yesterday at the Washington Wire Blog (Wall Street Journal), Siobhan Hughes quoted Rep. Michelle Grisham (D., N.M.), who will be a new Member on the House Ag Committee, as saying: “‘This freshman class—the sense that I’m getting from this class is there’s a renewed commitment for optimism to break through the worst of those challenges, and that’s holding me up,’ Ms. Grisham said.
“She also said her focus would be local. ‘Rural economic development; jobs, jobs, jobs,’ she said, explaining the significance of her new spot on the House Agriculture Committee.”
And Rep. Gloria Negrete McLeod (D., Calif.), also a new Ag Committee Member, was a guest yesterday on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal” program where she fielded a viewer question on the SNAP (food stamps) program. This brief response, and her full interview can be found here, at FarmPolicy.com Online.
In other news, Daniel Looker reported yesterday at Agriculture Online that, “When 2012 ended, the nation’s crop insurance companies, with the backing of USDA, had made just over $10 billion in indemnity payments to cover losses from one of the nation’s worst droughts.
“While it’s a big number and not the final one, it’s smaller at this point than $10.8 billion paid for southern Plains drought, North Dakota floods and other calamities in 2011. It also seems to be lagging behind the estimates for 2012 loss payments made in the heat of summer last year, when several agricultural economists from the Midwest were projecting $30 billion in loss claims.
“It’s possible that the final tally for total 2012 payments could be $12 billion to $13 billion, Kansas State University agricultural economist and insurance expert Art Barnaby told Agriculture.com Thursday.”
Reuters writer Julie Ingwersen reported yesterday that, “Snowfall in parts of the Plains last week had little impact on historic drought gripping the region, but parts of Illinois, Wisconsin and the Southeast showed slight improvement, weather experts said.
“A weekly report issued Thursday by a consortium of federal and state climatology experts said that as of January 1, 42.05 percent of the contiguous United States was in severe to exceptional drought, down from 42.45 percent the previous week.”
And Bloomberg writer Brian Wingfield reported yesterday that, “The drought-depleted Mississippi River will remain safe for barge traffic at least for the next week and possibly until Jan. 26, as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers makes progress in removing submerged rocks.”