Congress plans to finalize farm bill by end of the year


Issue Date: October 10, 2018
By Christine Souza

Now that the existing federal farm bill has expired, what does that mean for farmers, ranchers, marketers and consumers? The short answer: It depends on the funding status for each program included in the bill.

A House-Senate conference committee assigned to reconcile differences between the two versions of a new farm bill wasn't able to reach agreement before the current bill expired Sept. 30. That means close to 40 programs are left without funding until Congress passes a new bill.

Conference committee members have said they expect to make progress during the next several weeks and intend to pass a new bill by the end of the year, during the "lame duck" session following the Nov. 6 midterm elections.

"If lawmakers do not pass a new farm bill before the end of the year, then a completely new farm bill will have to be written in the next Congress—and that could be a problem," said Josh Rolph, California Farm Bureau Federation federal policy manager.

Rolph said finishing the farm bill by the end of the year would likely prevent most impacts on farmers and ranchers.

The farm bill is five-year, $860 billion legislation that authorizes and modifies farm programs under various titles or sections including commodity, conservation, nutrition, trade, research, energy and more.

Some programs in the existing 2014 Farm Bill "have a budget baseline beyond the end of the farm bill in fiscal year 2018, while others do not," according to the Congressional Research Service, which said the existing farm bill has about 39 programs that do not have baseline funding.

This, Rolph said, is why it is important to pass a new farm bill and not simply a one-year extension.

Sara Neagu-Reed, CFBF associate director of federal policy, noted that the Foreign Market Development Program, which helps create, expand and maintain long-term export markets for agricultural products, does not have baseline funding beyond Sept 30. Organic programs could also be affected, she said.

Erin Huston, a CFBF federal policy consultant, noted that the Biomass Crop Assistance Program is also tied to baseline funding and would be left unfunded until a new bill passes. Through this program, farmers receive funding to offset some of the cost of experimenting with growing crops for bioenergy production.

"The Biomass Crop Assistance Program helps move plant materials, vegetation and agricultural waste into biofuels and helps with moving material off the forest," Huston said.

Conservation programs that have had funding lapse include one that enhances quality of surface and groundwater used as the primary source of drinking water, a program that restores watersheds and a wetland mitigation-banking program.

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which has proven popular with California farmers and ranchers, has its funding authorized through 2019, according to Alan Forkey, assistant state conservationist in California for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service. EQIP helps farmers with resource improvements to benefit water, air, soil and wildlife habitat.

Forkey said other programs under the farm bill conservation title are "basically over" for now, because of the lack of a new farm bill.

"Without knowing what is in the next farm bill, we are limited to our operating budget, which includes salary and expenses, and money for conservation programs has been set for the continuing resolution, which is basically through Dec. 7," he said.

For California, Forkey said, the trend has been to increase the amount of funding allocated for resource improvements on farms and ranches.

"Funding has continued to go up at a fairly rapid pace," he said. "At the tail end of the 2002 Farm Bill, we were getting $17-$25 million a year, and for the 2008 Farm Bill we were getting $50-$60 million. There have been a few years where we've been over $100 million in EQIP funds."

The biggest difference between the House and Senate farm bills, Forkey said, is the House version incorporates parts of the Conservation Stewardship Program into EQIP and eliminates CSP. The Senate bill, on the other hand, reauthorizes a separate CSP through 2028.

"The conservation title is pretty nonpartisan, and we get support from both sides of the aisle and everybody seems to want to provide funding for farmers and ranchers," Forkey said. "I don't think there is going to be a huge battle, but there are some issues in the conservation title that need to be worked out."

One primary sticking point during farm bill negotiations, Rolph said, has been tougher work requirements included in the House farm bill for recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

"Both sides were at a stalemate for the last two months," he said.

Discretionary funding for SNAP and other programs was extended through Dec. 7.

That date, Rolph said, "is the next benchmark for a potential government shutdown, when the government has to be funded, and SNAP is part of that."

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.