Congress urged to talk
to farmers, pass Farm Bill
As Congress moved into its August recess without passing a Farm Bill, many farm groups are pressing Representatives to talk to farmers and hear about the struggles brought on by economic conditions and the drought.
The fact that a major drought hit the nation just as Congress was deliberating on a five-year farm policy package makes it even more urgent that a bill gets passed, farm leaders say, because existing farm policies expire Sept. 30.
The National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) is asking members of Congress, as they return to their districts for the August congressional recess, to meet with dairy farmers in their districts to discuss the "perilous economic conditions" and the "urgent need" for Congress to pass a new Farm Bill yet in 2012.
"NMPF believes this type of one-on-one dialogue will enable members in both the House and the Senate to see firsthand the need for passing a five-year Farm Bill, including the vital reforms to the nation's dairy policy in the form of the Dairy Security Act (DSA)," said Jerry Kozak, the organization's President and CEO.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack waded into the debate, telling the Des Moines Register that the real goal in the House of delaying passage is to push the farm policy debate back to the end of the year where these essential rural policies can be used as bargaining chips against other contentious programs like major program cuts (called sequestration) and tax cuts.
"We need a five-year Farm Bill. If folks care about rural America they will get this done," he told his home-state newspaper last week.
A one-year extension of current policies coupled with some disaster payments is "just an excuse not to put in the work to build a coalition," Vilsack said, adding that producers and rural America need to have the stability that would come with a five-year program.
Before Congress left on a five-week summer vacation, also called a "district work period" the House of Representatives tried and failed to pass a one-year extension of current farm policies.
Opposed by most farm groups, that bill was pulled by House leaders, but a $383 million drought assistance package was passed. The environmental community opposed that package because most of the cuts to pay for it came out of conservation programs.
FARM BILL PASSAGE?
The Senate passed its version of a five-year plan called the "Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012" (S. 3240) on June 21 by a 64-35 margin and the House Agriculture Committee approved its version July 12.
Action in the full House has been blocked by Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) who reportedly fears a floor fight that will divide the members of his party.
Instead of action on the Farm Bill, the Speaker asked House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) to move ahead with the disaster aid and the one-year extension of current policies.
In his comments to the Des Moines newspaper, Vilsack said that rural communities are being hurt by the drought and will be hurt even more if a stalemate in Congress on farm legislation is allowed to stand.
A majority of farm groups appear to agree with the Secretary of Agriculture.
Last week, as members of the House scurried to take final action before their summer vacation, a coalition of farm organizations - that don't always agree on policy issues - wrote to the House, urging passage of the total Farm Bill package rather than the extension or the disaster bill.
That drought disaster bill, called the "Agricultural Disaster Assistance Act of 2012" (H.R. 6233) passed on a vote of 223-197. The $383 million drought disaster package for livestock producers, orchardists, fish farms, beekeepers and growers of nursery trees, was supported by half of Wisconsin's delegation.
Reps. Paul Ryan, Tom Petri, Sean Duffy and Reid Ribble - all Republicans - supported the package, while Reps. Tammy Baldwin, Ron Kind, Gwen Moore, the three Democrats, and Jim Sensenbrenner, a Republican, voted against it.
The measure retroactively extends the Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP), the Livestock Forage Program (LFP), the Emergency Livestock Assistance Program (ELAP) and the Tree Assistance Program (TAP) - all programs that expired in 2011.
Offsets to pay for the disaster assistance come from imposing caps on two conservation programs, the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to the dismay of the environmental community.
DISASTER BILL BLASTED
National Farmers Union (NFU) president Roger Johnson blasted the disaster bill, as did other farm leaders.
"An incomplete disaster package is a blatant attempt to kill any chance of enacting a new Farm Bill in this Congress," Johnson said. "While NFU fully supports providing disaster assistance to farmers and ranchers, we are extremely concerned with the limited disaster package that is being offered.
"All of the programs the standalone disaster legislation temporarily extends could be extended for five years if the 2012 Farm Bill were conferenced and enacted. This duplicative step only wastes precious legislative time," Johnson added.
The disaster package is designed to make it appear as though Congress is taking action to help farmers in need before members go home to their districts this month, he said.
"However, this ill-considered action only holds farmers hostage with uncertainty, and does nothing to address specialty crops, dairy, commodities and other non-insured produce. Instead, the House should pass a 2012 Farm Bill."
The coalition letter to Congress that included NFU was also signed by American Farm Bureau Federation, American Soybean Association, National Association of Wheat Growers, National Barley Growers Association, National Corn Growers Association, National Farmers Union, National Milk Producers Federation, National Sunflower Association, United Fresh Produce Association, U.S. Canola Association, USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council and Western Growers.
The groups told members of Congress that they didn't oppose disaster assistance, but noted that almost identical provisions to retroactively extend similar programs are included in the Senate-passed Farm Bill and the bill draft that was approved by the House Agriculture Committee.
Instead of passing a disaster bill, the House could have gotten to work on the full Farm Bill and gotten the same job done, they said.
Wisconsin Rep. Kind, who voted against the disaster assistance package, said it was "just another partisan attempt to prevent us from taking up a five-year, comprehensive Farm Bill. One-year extensions and ad hoc bills aren't going to get us a farm policy that better serves our family farmers."
Kind said it's important that farmers get help during this historic drought, but not at the expense of conservation programs that are already under-funded. There is already bipartisan support for eliminating direct payments in farm programs, he said,
"Millions of dollars in direct payments going to very few large agribusinesses does nothing to help our family farmers and is a misuse of taxpayer dollars," he said.
"A five-year Farm Bill would allow us not only to eliminate outdated direct payments, but continue to provide the conservation funding our farmers rely on," Kind said.
DAIRY FARM CRISIS
Kozak, whose NMPF signed on with the coalition, agrees that it is vitally important for a Farm Bill to get passed soon, adding that the ad hoc disaster bill does little to help dairy farmers.
"We are approaching a crisis comparable to or worse than that of 2009, when dairy farmers lost $20 billion in equity and thousands of farmers went out of business," he said.
"When you factor in additional operating costs, such as labor and energy costs, on top of the sky-high price of feed caused by the ongoing drought, dairy farmers are currently selling their milk for far less than the cost of production," said Kozak.
The Dairy Security Act provisions in the Farm Bill, which has already been approved by the Senate and by the House Agriculture Committee, would give producers and their bankers the assurances they need to continue their operations through these tough times, he added.
Kozak said he hoped that farmers can spur Congress into action after Labor Day. Members of Congress return to Washington on September 10, which leaves them fewer than 10 legislative days to act before current farm policy expires.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK), and Ranking Members Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Collin Peterson (D-MN) have pledged to continue their push for full passage of a comprehensive, five-year farm package after the August recess.
Many Congressional watchers believe that the most likely scenario is that the Farm Bill will have to wait until the "lame duck" session of Congress after this fall's elections. But farm leaders hope it won't come that late in the year.
They want farmers to impress on their lawmakers how important farm legislation is, especially this year.