2012 Farm Bill progresses through Senate Ag CommitteeWritten by Saige Albert
The 2008 Farm Bill expires at the end of September, and in a letter to the Senate Agriculture Committee leaders American Farm Bureau president Bob Stallman said, “The importance of completing a farm bill cannot be overstated.”
“Farmers, ranchers, and the men and women who live in rural communities deserve to know what the rules will be moving forward,” said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on April 27. “With the current law expiring, we cannot wait any longer to reauthorize this essential law for rural America. It needs to happen this year.”
In Wyoming, conservation programs heavily impact producers and Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts Executive Director Bobbie Frank says they are pleased that Title II, the conservation title, has seen consolidation.
“Consolidation of programs is something that our association has been advocating for,” says Frank, who notes that the volume of conservation programs in previous Farm Bills have required both program administrators and producers to understand too many details. “We don’t think that producers needed to memorize 26 acronyms.”
The consolidation of the Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program (FRPP), the Grasslands Reserve Program (GRP) and the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) resulted in the creation of the Agriculture Conservation Easement Program. This program saw an increase in funding. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP) were combined, with five percent of funding reserved for wildlife programs. Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative (CCPI), the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program (AWEP) and regional conservation programs were consolidated into the Regional Conservation Partnership Program.
“There are so many Farm Bill programs that we would have liked to see some aggressive consolidation, and they did some, although it didn’t go as far as we’d like to see it,” adds Frank. “We are pretty happy with what came out of the Senate.”
“In this budget environment, it is especially important to ensure that current conservation programs are operating as efficiently as possible,” said House Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-MN).
The conservation title of the Farm Bill was cut by $6 billion over 10 years.
“From our standpoint, it looks like a pretty good bill,” says government affairs specialist and lobbyist for Rocky Mountain Farmers Union Scott Zimmerman. “There are no more direct or counter-cyclical payments, but the changes they made to assist in crop insurance risk management should help give Wyoming producers more options and a better price against natural disasters.”
Despite cuts, Zimmerman adds that many concerns were addressed, including provisions to ensure competitive markets and monitor concentration in the packing industry, and Zimmerman and Frank agree cuts will be manageable.
However, Frank Lucas, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, said, “I am disappointed by the Senate bill’s commodity title because it does not work for all of agriculture. It fails to provide producers a viable safety net and instead locks in profit for a couple of commodities. I have made it clear that my chief priority is making certain that the commodity title is equitable and provides a safety net for all covered commodities and all regions of the country.”
The next step
“I think everyone wants to get the Farm Bill done this year,” said American Farm Bureau policy expert Mary Kay Thatcher, “but it will be an uphill battle.”
Wyoming Farm Bureau Executive Director Ken Hamilton says the next step is passing the bill in the Senate, after which the House will have to approve a bill.
“The House version will get quite a few people excited, and I don’t know how they are going to do it without defunding programs,” says Hamilton, noting that the House budget requires significant cuts.
Zimmerman elaborates that the Ryan budget proposal shows a cut of $33 billion, while House leadership and the ranking member for the agriculture committee only looked at a $23 billion reduction.
“We have a $10 billion split between the binding resolution and what the Ag Committee initially proposed to cut,” explains Zimmerman. “I’m not sure those numbers will be reconciled.”
An uphill battle
With only 30 legislative days left this year, Thatcher said that getting a Farm Bill through will be difficult, and she gives the bill only a 15 percent chance of success. She continued that, without passage, the bill will have to be extended in the first of October to avoid reverting back to the permanent law from 1949.
“In 1949, there was no food stamp program, so you know we will do something to extend,” she added. “I doubt that we could extend without paying a price, and when we take those reductions, it will be tough to write a bill with an adequate safety net.”
Zimmerman is also skeptical that a bill will be passed, saying, “I don’t know that there will be time for the House to prepare a bill, do mark up in committee and get it through. I would not be surprised if the 2008 bill is extended.”
However, the bipartisan nature of the bill is helpful for getting legislation passed.
“Because of the bipartisan nature of what came out, I would assume that things will go ok on the Senate floor,” says Frank.
Thatcher echoed her thoughts, saying, “We always have bipartisanship in agriculture, and Senators Stabenow and Roberts seemed joined at the hip in this. That is great, because it will take a bipartisan effort to move forward.”
“Congress should remember that this bill is about the future, so it must support and grow the next generation of farmers,” added Vilsack. “By focusing on these priorities as they work to pass a bill this year, Congress will help move our nation and our economy forward. They’ll create jobs, support working families, strengthen rural communities and build on the incredible success and productivity of American agriculture.”