Oct 21, 2012

POLICY NEWS: Farm Bill Uncertain


        By Mary Fund

The federal farm bill expired September 30 with no fanfare or immediately discernable impacts, and without passage of a new 2012 farm bill. This is unprecedented, but then again, a farm bill has never come up for renewal during a presidential election year. The perceived lack of impact, though, is not accurate.

   True, commodity program changes won’t begin until January 2013, and the food and nutrition program (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP) continues to assist the nation’s vulnerable population as Congress saw to it that its authority was part of the just-passed Continuing Resolution that keeps government running through March 2013. Crop insurance, the new sacred cow of agricultural policy, is not technically part of the farm bill, as it is authorized under the Federal Crop Insurance Act, so remains unaffected. 

   While current commodity program payments are covered until the end of 2012 with some payments being made in 2013, any bill passed now, whether in the lame duck session or by a new Congress next year, will make big changes in commodity crop programs—based on those proposed by both House and Senate in their respective versions of a farm bill.  Administratively those changes don’t happen quickly or easily, and farmers (and their bankers or credit providers) need time to make decisions. So the longer the limbo, the greater the impact and the greater the confusion.

   Conservation programs present a mixed bag. The Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) and its sub-programs and special initiatives, should continue normal enrollments due to an earlier extension of their program authority to 2014. The just passed Continuing Resolution, which keeps government running, provides continued funding for EQIP – albeit at a lower level than before, but funding.   But the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), while also authorized to 2014, only has funds to pay for existing contracts but not enough to pay for any new ones.  Until Congress takes action, new enrollments to CSP are on hold.

   The Grassland Reserve Program (GRP), Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), and Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) have acres remaining under the acreage cap of the 2008 farm bill. But the legal authority for all of these expired September 30, so according to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), there can’t be new enrollments until Congress passes a new farm bill, extends the current farm bill or extends these authorities in a continuing resolution or final appropriations bill. Payments and maintenance of existing contracts is allowed.

    Additional programs important to building a better food and farm future are also impacted by the lack of a new farm bill.  The past two farm bills (2002 and 2008) included programs and funding beyond the traditional food stamps, commodity subsidies, and conservation. Programs impacted, according to NSAC, include: Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, Conservation Reserve Program- Transition Incentive Program, Farmers Market Promotion Program, National Organic Certification Pro-gram, Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative, Rural Energy for America Program, Specialty Crop Research Initiative, and the Value Added Producer Grant Program.

    These programs continue to exist on paper, but after October 1 have no renewed funding; and will remain so until after Congress takes action on a new farm bill, or extends the current bill. Without these programs, beginning farmer training opportunities and minority farmer assistance programs dry up. Microloans and training for very small businesses end. Researchers will not be able to get dedicated funding for organic or fruit and vegetable research. Funds to help move expiring CRP land into the hands of beginning farmers ends. Incentives to create sustainable biofuels based on perennial crops will end.

    In short, programs to create jobs related to food (not commodity crops), renewable energy and improved production and access to healthy food are on hold and may not be restored.

Furthermore, there are programs that like the above- mentioned conservation programs (CRP, GRP, and WRP), have funds but lack the authority to spend them. These include programs like the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program and Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program.

    While many of the above “non-traditional” programs have been included in both the Senate and House versions of the new Farm Bill, their fate is uncertain. Will there funding be restored? And will they be included in the new bill?

    Indeed, the fate of the farm bill during the lame duck session is uncertain. Will Congress come together and work out a compromise bill by the end of the year?   Or will Congress work out an extension of the current bill with some modifications until spring, summer or fall 2013? This option means the new Congress beginning in January 2013 starts the farm bill process all over again. 

    Add to all this the questions surrounding major issues also before Congress before the end of the year (tax issues and  deficit reduction/fiscal cliff), and the already thick fog of the farm bill’s future gets thicker. But whether there is an extension (short or long) or a full bill, all of the farm programs should be included. This is not a time to abandon newer important programs that aim to establish a next generation of farmers and ranchers, answer critical production questions for specialty crops, organic practices, and biofuels, and ensure access to healthy food for urban and rural citizens alike. 
    (With help from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC). For ongoing information on farm bill developments, go to: http://sustainableagriculture.net/blog/

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