By STEVE BINDER
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Federal lawmakers squeezed an extension of the 2008 farm bill through the waning hours of the 102nd Congress last week, but ag leaders say the measure leaves growers and ranchers with uncertainty that makes long-term planning difficult.
The extension, part of the larger debate in the House and Senate over tax rates and federal spending cuts, keeps alive most elements of the 2008 ag legislation through September 2013 and put targets on the backs of lawmakers in the new 113th Congress to pass a new five-year bill sooner rather than later.
Craig Hill, president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, said Congress essentially put on hold the hard work they were elected to do. “This extension does kind of kick the can down the road a bit. There is some good in this, but we would have much rather had a five-year farm bill. It still leaves an era of uncertainty,” he said.
Like Hill, Illinois Corn Growers Assoc. President Paul Taylor said he appreciates that Congress took some action regarding a new farm bill rather than no action at all, but he cautions the extension falls short of what the industry wanted.
“Our appreciation is tempered … against the frustration that the work in which our corn farmer-members invested to pass a five-year bill was effectively tossed out the window,” he said. “The plan we supported would have saved the federal budget more than $20 billion over the next 10 years, while ending taxpayer funded direct payments that are made regardless of farm income in a given year.”
To the surprise of many ag leaders, lawmakers left intact the so-called direct payments to growers as part of the extension, something most ag groups agreed to cutting completely in a new farm bill.
“Those direct payments are now on the books for 2013 and are widely recognized as a boon to the Southern state agricultural interests,” Taylor said. “Those same interests will no doubt seek to maintain direct payments in any newly-crafted legislation in 2013, regardless of need and budgetary impact.
“The 113th Congress must take up the serious task of rebuilding new farm legislation, leaving the farmer-prioritized crop insurance program intact. Crop insurance is a public-private partnership in which farmers share the cost of the program.”
Pam Johnson, president of the National Corn Growers Assoc., was upset with Congress’ inability to pass longer-term farm legislation. It was the first time Congress could not pass a five-year farm bill in an election year.
“Once again, Congress’ failure to act pushes agriculture aside, hampering farmers’ ability to make sound business decisions for the next five years,” she said. “The National Corn Growers Association is tired of the endless excuses and lack of accountability.
“We hope the 113th Congress proves to be more fruitful and that the leaders in Congress can place petty partisanship aside to create a bill that benefits all of America.”
The Senate in June 2012 passed its version of a new farm bill, estimated at approximately $500 billion for five years.
It trimmed about $24 billion by cutting out direct payments and slicing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and other programs.
The House Agriculture Committee passed a version of a five-year bill that cut even more, some $35 billion, but House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) declined to call either bill for vote last fall because he said he didn’t believe he had enough GOP votes for passage.
Some GOP lawmakers wanted steeper cuts, particularly from SNAP, which makes up a majority of the farm bill.
The extension measure averted a potential doubling of milk prices; without action, dairy subsidies would have reverted back to support levels from 1949. It leaves intact the existing crop insurance program through September 2013, and it also reinstated a biodiesel tax incentive that had expired in December 2011.
But the inclusion of direct payments to growers of corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and rice – which cost about $5 billion last year – stunned many in the ag industry. The American Farm Bureau advocated its abolishment. Hill said he was “shocked and surprised” it survived.
Established in 1996, direct payments go to owners of land used to grow specific crops, with the highest per-acreage payments going to growers of rice and cotton. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was part of last-minute negotiations with Vice President Joe Biden, and it was McConnell who fought to keep direct payments for now, showing support for Southern growers, said David DeGennaro, a legislative analyst with the Environmental Working Group.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition was critical of continuing direct payments, while noting conservation funding and money for other areas were either cut or left out. In a statement, the group said, “Many smaller, targeted programs to fund farm and food system reform … included in a weekend agreement between Senate Agriculture Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and House Agriculture Chair Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), were left out completely.
“Also left out … is any workable dairy policy for the next year and any disaster aid for livestock and fruit producers. The message is unmistakable – direct commodity subsidies, despite high market prices, are sacrosanct, while the rest of agriculture and the rest of rural America can simply drop dead.”