By Jamison Cocklin
Little, if any, hope remains for a broad extension of the farm bill, set to expire Sept. 30, after the legislation dissolved under the weight of election-year politics.
The U.S. House of Representatives adjourned Friday, leaving a broad overhaul dead and stoking uncertainty among some farmers who rely on the bill for assistance. The bill typically receives bipartisan support.
As of Friday, consensus on Capitol Hill overwhelmingly pointed to neither an extension nor temporary extension of the bill, meaning most of the legislation’s provisions soon will expire.
A new farm bill will have to wait until November when Congress returns after elections, stirring ire on both sides of the aisle.
A group of bipartisan lawmakers from both chambers has advocated unsuccessfully for passage, but the bill got stuck under the intractable divide that has characterized Congress lately.
“We’re very disappointed; now there’s worries about a lame-duck session,” said Tadd Nicholson, executive director of the Ohio Corn and Wheat Growers Association. “But if they don’t have enough votes to pass the house today, I don’t see how they’ll have enough in November.”
Last week, the House approved a stopgap spending measure to maintain federal funding through March. The Senate is expected to take up the resolution over the weekend, which does little for the kinds of provisions included in a farm bill.
However, it would keep crop insurance and food stamps funded, as well as basic operations at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers many key programs.
Though not entirely a doomsday scenario for the industry, funding for several key assistance programs will remain through year’s end at a reduced rate, but some will disappear entirely come Sept. 30.
Ohio boasts 74,700 farms, and the stalemate in Washington carries a series of implications for an industry that generates more than $100 billion in the state each year.
Programs under contract, such as those that protect marginal farmland, water and conservation would continue to be honored, but no new agreements would be made starting in October. Payments to dairy farmers would be reduced and energy- efficiency programs would stop after Sept. 30.
Specialty crops, such as hybrids, a particular staple in Ohio, would see no new block grants awarded for crop research, start-up businesses or development, though current funding would be maintained.
If no new legislation is passed by Jan. 1, current law would revert back to legislation passed in 1938 and 1939. Under these circumstances, milk prices would quadruple under a measure known as parity pricing, a mind-boggling model little understood in Washington today.
The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture would be required to determine best practices for stock reserve programs and determine proper mandates for stockpiling stores of wheat and other commodities.
The Senate passed a bipartisan five-year extension during the summer. But the House Agriculture Committee passed its own bill, and lawmakers in that chamber refused to hear either version.
Senate Democrats later refused to take-up a smaller temporary package of loans and grants approved in the House for a limited number of farmers, denouncing deep cuts to nutrition programs such as food stamps, which are rolled into the legislation.
As consumers feel the pinch at the grocery store and commodity prices rise on worries surrounding the drought, some conservatives believe the legislation should be further scaled back and want more cuts.
If anything, those with knowledge of the impasse in the local grocery industry say consumers will feel the squeeze later, rather than sooner if a comprehensive bill fails by year’s end, especially considering this season’s drought.
“It will definitely affect some prices,” said Henry Nemenz, owner of three local IGA stores. “But I don’t think it’s as bad as some farmers are making it out to be. There are farmers in some parts of the country that aren’t affected by the drought or who don’t rely on subsidies — they’ll fill the gap and ease prices.”
For now, farmers have little assurance of what the future holds without new legislation.
“Many of these programs are about looking into the future,” said Yvonne Lesicko, senior director of legislative and regulatory policy at the Ohio Farm Bureau. “If you’re a farmer in Ohio, you don’t want to make decisions based on what subsidies are available, you want to make them based on the marketplace; without a new farm bill, it’s difficult to do that and you’re left with uncertainty.”