Why we need a new farm bill now

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Both the Senate and House agriculture committees passed their versions of a new farm bill by solid bipartisan majorities in June and July, respectively.  The Senate approved its bill on a 64 to 35 vote on June 21. However, the House leadership has refused to take their bill to the floor, saying it doesn’t have the votes to pass. The main obstacle is funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, previously known as the food stamp program. Some want to cut SNAP by twice as much or more than the $16.5 billion reduction in the Committee bill. Others want to eliminate or significantly scale back this cut. If majorities in both parties are prepared to vote no, there is no way Speaker Boehner can find the 218 votes needed to pass the bill. 

This explains why the farm bill hasn’t moved forward for the past two months. But it doesn’t address the consequences of not passing a new five-year bill between now and the end of the year. U.S. farmers depend on farm programs to provide a safety net against low prices and weather-induced reductions in crop yields. They compete not only with each other, but with producers in Europe and South America, many of whom are more heavily subsidized by their governments. As family-run operations, U.S. farms can’t cut back on labor or production when prices fall. Without the farm program safety net, they would go out of business, as many did in the mid-1980s and the late 1990s. With no control over the weather, foreign competition or low prices, farmers and their lenders need the long-term certainty which only a new five-year farm bill can provide to help them make decisions critical to their future, including buying or renting land, purchasing equipment, and planting crops.

Agriculture is the only sector to make a significant contribution to reducing federal budget deficits and slowing the rise of the national debt. Both the Senate and House versions of the bill make significant reductions in spending, cutting farm programs by $13 billion and conservation programs by another $6 billion, over the next 10 years. The savings include elimination of the controversial Direct Payment program, which pays farmers a lump sum regardless of which crops they plant, or whether or not crop prices have fallen to levels that would warrant support.

The current drought affecting much of the country is also a reason to get the farm bill done. Conservation practices that have mitigated the effects of the dry conditions and prevented the re-occurrence of another 1930’s-style dust-bowl will be left in limbo. The farm bill also contains comprehensive disaster provisions that will help keep in business the livestock producers, fruit and vegetable growers, and others who do not have protection from drought and other environmental challenges through crop insurance.

The inability of the House to act this summer will threaten even deeper cuts in a new farm bill during the lame duck session, which would put this carefully balanced compromise at risk. Or it could result in a one-year extension of current law, which would kick the can into 2013, when a new Congress and potentially a new president would start the process all over again. This scenario, which many think likely, will not provide the long-term certainly which farmers and many others in rural America, who also depend on the farm bill, need from Washington.

Speaking on behalf of the Farm Bill Now coalition, Wellman is the president of the American Soybean Association and farms in Syracuse, Neb.,where he raises soybeans, corn, winter wheat, alfalfa and a cow-calf herd. ASA is one of more than 90 organizations that comprise the Farm Bill Now coalition.