Plenty at Stake in Farm Bill Standoff

September 21st, 2012

North Country Public Radio
by David Sommerstein

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Sep 20, 2012 — UPDATE: Thursday afternoon, the Wall Street Journal reports House Speaker John Boehner has officially confirmed that the farm bill won’t be taken up until after the November elections.

Copyright 123RF Stock Photo

North Country farmers are anxiously watching the status of the new farm bill in the House of Representatives. The current farm bill expires on September 30. The Senate passed a new five-year, $497 billion farm bill over the summer. But House leadership has yet to let its version come to the floor for a vote. “Tea Party” Republicans want to see much deeper cuts in the biggest item in the bill — the federal food stamp program.

So what if the Farm Bill isn’t passed by the end of the month? How would that affect North Country agriculture?

The truth is, if the Farm Bill actually expires, no one seems to know what’ll happen. Julie Suarez is policy director for the New York Farm Bureau: “Because ostensibly everything reverts back to the permanent law, or what’s called permanent provisions, and those are on the books since the 1930s and ‘40s.”

So let’s look at the more likely scenario – that Congress, locked in a partisan battle over food stamps with an election looming, passes a three-month or one year extension of the current farm bill, to nudge it past Election Day. Suarez says a one year extension “really hurts” her organization’s members.

She says New York dairy farmers would lose what they thought was a significant victory. In the new farm bill, the Milk Income Loss Contract, or MILC, subsidy program would be replaced with something dairy farmers prefer, an insurance program for milk prices: “If prices tank as they have been want to do unfortunately, there will be this quote-unquote, kind of an insurance product available that farmers could use and then see some assistance to get through the rough times.”

Suarez says farmers also stand to win a better safety net for natural disasters like Hurricane Irene and this summer’s drought. The new farm bill would increase conservation programs and boost funding for agricultural research at Cornell.

Steve Gilman of the Northeast Organic Farming Association says failure to pass the farm bill would also set back organic farms and small fruit and vegetable operations. The new bill would help pay for the costs of becoming certified organic and boost support for the next generation of farmers: “One of the things is that for farmers in this country, the average age is over 55. There’s a whole set of young people wanting to get into agriculture and need some basic support.”

Even on the most controversial, and costly, program in the farm bill, food stamps, North Country farmers could suffer because many farmers markets now accept food stamps as payment. Bernadette Logozar works at Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Malone office: “It is a growing percentage of the sales in this area. Additionally, that’s getting more of those folks who receive those benefits to access local food.”

The holdup in the House has come down to this: The Senate version of the farm bill cuts $4.5 billion from the $80 billion food stamp program. The version that passed the House Agriculture committee increases those cuts to $16 billion. But conservative Republicans are holding out for even bigger savings.

If food stamps are the poster child for bloated government on the right, on the left, and increasingly in the center, it’s the billions in farm subsidies that favor big corn, soybean, and other commodity crop farms in the Midwest and West.

The New York Farm Bureau’s Julie Suarez says the new farm bill would start to chip away at those subsidies: “So we’re moving away from a direct subsidy program and much more to tools like better crop insurance.”

Some observers wanted to see an even stronger move away from crop subsidies. An editorial in this week’s Chicago Tribune urges Congress to let the Farm Bill die because subsidy reform doesn’t go far enough.

In the North Country’s main Congressional race, Democrat Bill Owens and Republican Matt Doheny have both talked repeatedly about reducing the size of government. But they both support passage of the new farm bill, which would cost almost $500 billion over five years.

Matt Doheny says the new bill’s too important to farmers to delay: “The bill, if not passed, is going to revert back to World War II. We’ve advanced much more in terms of information technology and good old fashioned know-how, so that’s why we can’t just leave our farmers left for dead.”

Owens says the new bill already cuts $23 billion: “I think there will be compromise that will bring that number up to about 26 billion, if we could get it to conference committee, so that’s a substantial number when you talk about the size of the farm bill.”

Owens and Republican Chris Gibson from the Hudson Valley already voted in favor of the House version as members of the Agriculture committee. But as this ultra-partisan session of Congress winds down, the farm bill’s become one of the potent political footballs. That worries Steve Gilman of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, “because this all is not being done up front. It’s all being done in back rooms right now. We really don’t know what the outcome will be.”

And that’s leaving a lot of people who depend on agriculture – and 2 to 3 million people who stand to lose food stamps – in the lurch.

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