Commentary: Farm Bureau urges Congress to finalize a new farm bill
By Rayne Pegg
Congress has not completed work on a new five-year farm bill. Farm Bureau and other agricultural organizations want to see the bill finalized during a congressional session this month.
As Congress returns to session this week, its unfinished business includes finalizing a new five-year farm bill. The Senate, in an extraordinary moment of bipartisan support, passed a bill earlier this summer but the full House has not yet acted on the version of the farm bill adopted by the House Agriculture Committee.
Just getting to this point has meant compromise, cutting and streamlining programs—prioritizing what's most important for American farmers and ranchers to stay competitive. Both bills make dramatic changes to program payments, crop insurance and dairy policy. Many in the dairy business argue that the changes included in the 2012 Farm Bill are necessary to keep dairy farmers on the land.
All the hours of debate and negotiation would be lost if a bill is put off for another year. We would be restarting with a new Congress that would have to come up to speed on a very complex bill, which means losing momentum and restacking the deck on priorities.
The farm bill not only contains the traditional support programs for rice, wheat, cotton, dairy, etc., but it also funds conservation, research, nutrition, pest and disease management, forestry, and market development. Some may argue that deep cuts are necessary to the nutrition title and crop insurance but there isn't agreement on how much those programs should be cut.
Each version of the farm bill already includes significant reductions in spending. The current House bill saves $35 billion during 10 years compared to current farm bill spending. The Senate bill would cut $23.6 billion during the same period.
As the drought continues to hurt farmers and ranchers across the country, some members of Congress have expressed a preference for a stand-alone drought-relief package rather than a five-year farm bill. However, drought assistance is included in both the House and Senate farm bills and it is paid for in both versions. Having stand-alone legislation only temporarily takes the pressure off Congress to act on a full package. A farm bill would alleviate the emergency conditions farmers face.
Other aspects of the farm bill need to be resolved this year.
Both the full Senate and the House Agriculture Committee have completed reforms to important programs with bipartisan support. Conservation programs have been streamlined from 23 to 13 programs with an emphasis on working lands. The bill maintains important programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
However, the House committee version of the bill does not contain an important air quality provision within EQIP, which prioritizes resources for states designated as non-attainment areas by the Environmental Protection Agency, including California, Arizona, Texas and several other states. In California alone, the U.S. Department of Agriculture utilized this program to partner with more than 1,100 agricultural producers to implement projects that reduce emissions by five tons per day—the equivalent of removing 408,000 cars from California highways. The Air Quality Initiative is a wise use of taxpayer dollars and we are pushing for its inclusion in the final farm bill.
Farm Bureau supports another part of the House version of the bill, which recognizes the importance of specialty crops such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and nursery products by increasing funding for plant pest and disease management, the National Clean Plant Network and the specialty crop block grant programs. These programs have been an important tool to protect our agricultural production by maintaining the highest level of detection and eradication of pests and diseases. The devastation caused by pests and diseases resulting in production losses, quarantines and trade restrictions must be aggressively prevented.
But another provision in the House bill would put California farmers at a disadvantage. In an effort to help out-of-state producers avoid complying with California animal housing standards for egg production, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, added language that would prohibit states from applying separate standards on other state agricultural producers and manufacturers.
At first, this may sound like a good idea, but the ramifications go far beyond the hotly debated egg standards. Many California health and safety laws on agricultural products and livestock are unique to products sold in California. The standards apply to products produced and manufactured in and out of state. These standards were created to protect animal and plant health and create consistency in the marketplace for consumers. Maintaining this provision in the final bill would make it difficult for California farmers to compete with out-of-state producers.
With those issues and others still to be resolved, the current bills pending in Congress are not perfect. Farm Bureau will seek additional changes on behalf of California farmers, ranchers and consumers. If the House passes its version of the bill this month, a conference committee would provide an opportunity to reach a compromise that can be finalized before the end of the year.
Moving forward to finalize a new five-year farm bill would be better than extending the current bill or allowing it to expire.
We urge Congress to pass a farm bill this year. There is no time like the present to get it done.
(Rayne Pegg is manager of the California Farm Bureau Federal Policy Division. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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