Pass a five-year farm bill in 2013

Congress faces no shortage of challenges in the next few months, and plenty of urgent items are on the agenda. One issue that cannot be forgotten is the farm bill.

The 2008 farm bill expired on Sept. 30, 2012. Despite the tremendous bipartisan, multisector support behind the legislation and the $23 billion to $35 billion in savings that either the Senate or House Agriculture Committee versions of the bill would have achieved, Congress did not see the bill through. Instead, a one-year extension that expires in September was passed as part of the “fiscal cliff” avoidance package. Now farmers, ranchers and the lenders that provide them credit are at Congress’s mercy, struggling to make business decisions in this uncertain policy environment.

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The farm bill includes much more than simply programs related to production agriculture. For example, around 80 percent of farm bill spending goes to nutrition programs to help feed hungry Americans. Another significant portion goes toward cleaner air and water, more productive soil and wildlife habitats. Renewable energy programs are also part of the farm bill, which help to commercialize the next generation of biofuels and help farmers and ranchers install renewable energy systems. There’s a lot at stake in the farm bill.

Farm programs worked just as they were designed in 2012. A historic drought and a damaging spring frost caused severe damage to commodity and specialty crops. Although the year brought high commodity prices, kept elevated by bad weather conditions, many farmers lost part or all of their crop. Federally subsidized crop insurance provided farmers with the risk management tools they needed to keep going for another year even though growing conditions for many were as bad as they’ve ever been.

But crop insurance based on revenue will have serious problems when commodity prices fall. And livestock and dairy producers, who don’t have access to the same insurance options, were hurt by the drought and high feed costs. Adding to their trouble is the lack of funding for disaster programs in the extension. The farmers and ranchers who were among the most in need last year were left high and dry by Congress.

Farm bills should not be written so that they provide assistance in good times, they ought to be there for the bad times. What makes farm policy especially tricky is that sometimes parts of agriculture are struggling while others are thriving, divided by crop, commodity or geography. 

Family farms are crucial to our nation’s food supply, our rural communities and the overall health of our nation’s economy. The number of farmers and ranchers who make their primary living from production agriculture continues to shrink because of commodity price volatility. In 2012 alone, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that the total number of farms decreased by 11,630, and 3 million acres came out of agriculture. Farmers and ranchers need a strong safety net in place for difficult times, such as periods of low prices or when disastrous weather strikes, in order to ensure certainty for the continuation of family farm and ranch operations. There may be differences in opinion as to how to achieve this, but the Agriculture committees have shown the desire to come together to craft an affordable and effective farm policy.

As Congress gears up for what will be a tumultuous springtime, National Farmers Union asks that our needs not be overlooked. There is no more critical issue for rural America and the consumers we serve, both here in the United States and across the globe, than passage of a comprehensive, five-year farm bill in 2013.

Johnson is president of the National Farmers Union.