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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Agriculture Policy:  An urgent need for serious dialogue


The failure of the House Farm Bill is old news now, but the future of the Farm Bill will make news for some time to come.  And agriculture may have to come to grips with reality that the 2008 Farm Bill was the last one to see a linkage of farm and food policy.  And there is reason to wonder if the 2008 Farm Bill was the last omnibus farm policy document.  The agricultural community has become more focused on those prospects since the monumental vote last Thursday.  What are they saying? What is next? Are there options?

There are few options available now, and even fewer that are good, and fewer still that might become reality.  Please review the observations and analysis at House leadership has a challenging task after its disparate membership rejected its own committee’s Farm Bill for the first time in 80 years of creating national farm policy legislation.

1) The House leaders can direct their Agriculture Committee to create a fiscally pared down, purely partisan bill designed to only get Republican votes.  With the GOP majority in the House the outcome would be severely reduced spending on food and nutrition programs, and it could totally eliminate that $80 billion annual program area and only address the $16 billion annually appropriated for commodity programs, conservation, rural development and non-food programs.

2) The House could do nothing and let the 1949 Permanent Farm Law take effect. That will not happen, since that was the specter created by the “fiscal cliff” at the start of the year, which would have caused milk prices to increase to $6-$8 per gallon.  The Permanent Agricultural Law guarantees farmers commodity prices based on an inflation rate anchored in 1910-1914.  At the end of November, USDA calculated those to be: corn, $12 per bushel; soybeans, $28.90 per bushel; wheat, $18.30 per bushel; cattle, $292 per cwt; hogs $160 per cwt; and milk, $52.10 per cwt, all of which would severely jolt the economy.

3) The House could extend the 2008 Farm Bill for another year to keep structural integrity for agriculture.  That is what occurred at the outset of the year, which many found quite distasteful because of the cost, but since the House was not given a chance to vote on its Agriculture Committee’s Farm Bill proposal in 2012, there was no other choice at that time.

4) The House could also consider the Senate’s 2013 Farm Bill, which makes only a $400 million annual cut to food and nutrition programs, and would likely not get more than a handful of Republican votes in the House.


When you have a majority of the votes rejecting a Farm Bill, some because it does not spend enough and some because it spends too much there is little room for compromise.  That is where the House leaders are scrambling to determine their next move; and there is not much wiggle room.

The timetable for farm legislation is not friendly at all.  There are only 17 more legislative days on the House calendar between now and the August recess.  Once lawmakers break for their “district work period,” they will not return until September 9. At that point there will be only 9 legislative days prior to the expiration of the extended 2008 Farm Bill.

When the House members return home for the August recess, the Democrats will be praised by their metropolitan constituency for rejecting the proposed 3% cut to the SNAP program.  Rural Republicans with an agricultural constituency generally voted for the bill and will be thanked and told to keep working hard.  Both sides will feel energized.

On Monday the House leadership pulled from scheduled floor debate the annual appropriation bill for agriculture.  Such legislation is approved annually to authorize funding for the policies in the Farm Bill.  The action signals an attempt to re-write and use the annual appropriation bill to be a vehicle for funding a one year Farm Bill.

While that may chop the five year proposed House Farm Bill into 20% of its whole, it would prevent any long term policy planning at the USDA, and make all programs and services subject to annual review, when and if the Congress gets around to it.

Such a plan may be written to obtain enough Republican votes to pass in the House, but there would be few Democratic votes, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says such a plan would not be considered in the Senate.

All of this signals the need for a rational dialogue on the future of agricultural policy, an initiative offered by Dr. Neil Conklin of the Farm Foundation, a non-profit group “focused on informing the debate with comprehensive, objective information, rather than shaping the political landscape.”  Conklin invited his leadership to comment on the failure of House to approve the legislation and received numerous reactions that reflect the weightiness of the times:

  1. Former NRCS Chief Bruce Knight: “We are now at a fork in the road—will leadership in the House of Representatives tack to the center or tack to the right to gain the votes for final passage of a farm bill? The farm /nutrition alliance that has successfully moved previous farm bills appears to be unraveling. I fear that if this continues neither meaningful reforms of nutrition programs or farm programs will be achieved.
  2. Kansas farmer Jay Armstrong says: “People are beginning to think more about their food, what they eat, and where does all that money the government spends on the farm bill go. This is good as it opens up the opportunity for conversations about food and agriculture. The sad part is the lack of objectivity in explaining issues to our lawmakers and decision makers.” 
  3. Former USDA Agriculture Secretary John Block: “A failure like this will put more pressure on the Congress to do something. A lot of people will complain that [Congress needs] to get something done. This was not that hard. Once they come back from recess, they might have a different perspective.” 

Conklin said a new initiative must come forward and shared the optimism of one of his colleagues at the Farm Foundation, “The real challenge is how do we find a new equilibrium to support agricultural policy for the 21st century. Iowa farmer Varel Bailey, an eternal optimist, notes: “...In the past, some of the major changes in policy have happened at times of a near impossible political situation.”  The years 1862 and 1933, come to my mind.”

Conklin said the “Farm Foundation has begun a Dialogue on Food and Agriculture in the 21st Century to allow a diverse mix of stakeholders in today’s agriculture and food system to have civil discussions on critical issues shaping the future.”  That is where we are, and with the acceleration we have toward the need to feed 9 billion people by 2050, those diverse stakeholders need to converge and find a common ground in short order.



The need to feed the global community as population explodes will put pressure not just on agronomists and animal scientists, but policy makers who must agree on objectives as well as paths to achieve those.  With the failure of the House of Representatives to approve the Farm Bill last week, there is no indication that progress is being made.  Communication is necessary, and new efforts must be initiated to create a dialogue for the future of agriculture.


Posted by Stu Ellis on 06/26 at 10:07 PM | Permalink

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