Farm bill talks may be headed into overtime
By Christine Souza
As farmers work to complete this season's harvest and begin making decisions and purchases for 2014 crops, they're also paying attention to the ongoing farm bill debate in the U.S. Congress.
Both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives are expected to name members of a farm bill conference committee, now that the House has completed its farm bill package. The House approved a three-year nutrition bill last week on a partisan, 217-210 vote. The legislation by Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., would cut $39 billion during 10 years from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps.
The naming of conferees would begin the formal process of reconciling differences among three bills passed by the House and Senate. The nutrition-only bill adopted by the House last week complements a farm program bill it adopted in July. The Senate passed a comprehensive farm bill in June.
Rayne Pegg, manager of the California Farm Bureau Federation Federal Policy Division—who was in Washington, D.C., last week advocating on behalf of California farmers and ranchers—said it is important for both houses to select conferees quickly, so they can negotiate a final farm bill that the president will sign.
However, Pegg said she believes a conference between the two houses is highly unlikely prior to Sept. 30. That's when the 2008 Farm Bill—extended last year by Congress—is due to expire.
"I expect that a conference will not happen by the deadline," Pegg said. "There are still two major issues between the House and Senate versions of the farm bill."
She noted that the Senate bill cuts $4 billion during 10 years from the SNAP program, far less than the $39 billion included in the House bill.
"This is a large gap over which to reach a compromise," Pegg said.
The other significant stumbling block could be the dairy provisions in the two bills.
The Senate version of the farm bill includes a Dairy Security Act, with a Dairy Market Stabilization Program favored by the National Milk Producers Council. The House version eliminates the dairy price support program and the Milk Income Loss Contract program, in favor of programs that offer a voluntary gross margin insurance program for dairy farmers. Pegg said the two views of support for the nation's dairy sector are quite different and negotiating a compromise between the two could prove "quite challenging."
But finalizing a farm bill remains important, Pegg said, describing the measure as an economic stimulus bill that creates jobs and helps small businesses and rural communities. The farm bill contains key programs important to California agriculture, she said, including programs that enhance the environment and protect crops and livestock from invasive pests and diseases.
"The new farm bill must include programs to help farmers and ranchers implement projects to meet federal, state and local air-quality regulations," Pegg said. "The farm bill must allow managed grazing on Conservation Reserve Program land, in accordance with a conservation plan. It's crucial that the bill assure funding for the National Animal Health Laboratory Network and for plant pest and disease prevention programs."
She said California agricultural organizations also support continued funding for specialty crop block grants and research, and elimination of the adjusted gross income requirement for conservation programs.
Assuming a conference committee convenes, Pegg said, CFBF will be closely watching an amendment in the House bill that prohibits a state from imposing conditions on farm products imported into the state from elsewhere in the nation. The provision by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, would put California egg producers in particular at a disadvantage, because stricter standards for egg production approved by California voters would apply to in-state producers but not to out-of-state producers, who would be able to sell their products in California much more cheaply.
With the Sept. 30 deadline approaching, the chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said the House vote on nutrition programs brings the farm bill "close to the finish line." Stabenow and other Democrats criticized the cuts to nutrition programs approved by the Republican-controlled House.
"If House Republican leaders drop the divisive issues, appoint conferees and work with us in a bipartisan way, we can finalize a farm bill that creates jobs, reforms agriculture policy and reduces the deficit by tens of billions of dollars," Stabenow said. "It's time to get a comprehensive farm bill done to give farmers and ranchers the certainty they need to continue growing the economy."
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.