Farm groups are pushing Congress as hard as they can to get a farm bill completed before the end of the year.
Wisconsin Farm Bureau said last week that its top legislative priority at the federal level remains passage of a farm bill this year.
There's renewed hope among farm leaders that it could happen as Frank Lucas (R-OK) convened the House-Senate conference committee that is charged with ironing out differences in the versions of farm legislation passed by the two houses of Congress.
The panel, chaired by Lucas, held its first meeting on Oct. 30.
Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation said he was pleased that the conference committee has begun its talks and the fact that the group has gotten to work "has renewed our optimism that we truly are nearing the end of a three-plus year trek."
Having the legislation back in the hands of the Senate and House agriculture committee leaders and members is another step in the right direction, he said.
American Farm Bureau's first overarching goal for a farm bill is ensuring that permanent law is not repealed. That is the legislation Congress passed in the 1930s and 1940s that is designed to kick in if current lawmakers can't arrive at new farm legislation.
Many farm leaders believe that it's necessary to keep the permanent legislation in place as a way to keep Congress on track with new farm legislation.
Stallman said Farm Bureau's other large goal is to see that a "complete, unified farm bill continues." House members tried to separate the food programs from the farm programs during their deliberations earlier this year.
With those goals achieved, Stallman said his organization would also work to make sure a farm bill will provide safety net and risk management options that work for farmers in all regions, including those provisions that would help livestock and specialty crop producers.
National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson also found reason for optimism. "It is encouraging that the ball is now rolling and we are closer to a final bill than we have been in the past two years."
His organization has told members of the committee that they also believe it's important to maintain permanent law and that a new farm bill needs to get done this year.
"There is a need for certainty for U.S. family farmers, ranchers, fishermen, rural residents and hungry Americans."
Other NFU priorities include establishing fixed reference prices for commodity programs, enacting an inventory management tool as part of the dairy safety net, providing $900 million in mandatory funding for renewable energy efforts, and including adequate funding levels for the Farmers Market and Local Foods Promotion Program.
The organization opposes what he called "unnecessary legislative changes" to the Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL) law, which was mandated by Congress years ago so consumers would know where their meat was raised. But the program has never been implemented.
In opening remarks at the conference committee's first meeting Lucas said he hoped the group was "keenly aware of our responsibility to put policy in place that is good for our farmers, ranchers, consumers, and those who have hit difficult times.
"This takes place despite considering a complicated bill in an environment where the political battles can be loud and unhelpful. Consensus has proven to be an elusive goal at times in Congress, but it is a word that underscores the work we do in the agriculture community every day."
Lucas said he hoped to build on the work that he had done as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, along with ranking member Collin Peterson (D-MN) and their counterparts in the Senate, chair Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and ranking member Thad Cochran (R-MS)
"We have maintained a solid working relationship throughout this process," Lucas said. "We have never lost sight of the goal; we have never wavered in our commitment to enacting a five-year, comprehensive farm bill."
He said that when the committee finishes its work and reaches a consensus the final product will provide savings to the Treasury, significant reforms to policy and still provide a safety net for the production of food and fiber, but must also ensure U.S. citizens have enough to eat.
Lucas told his colleagues that creating a good farm bill going forward is personal for him.
"I live in a part of the country where bad policy nearly destroyed the way of life for the people in my district. I don't plan to be a part of a process that creates bad policy for agriculture and rural America," Lucas said.
He told them that a safety net must be written "with bad times in mind.
"A farm bill should not guarantee that the good times are the best, but rather that the bad times are manageable."
Lucas said he believes a safety net for agriculture should provide flexibility and a way to "meet the unpredictable nature of farming."
Congress has been working on its reauthorization of the farm bill for more than three years, he noted, and in that time the country experienced a drought of epic proportions that endangered vast areas of productive agriculture.
Some farming regions have experienced record-breaking floods and most recently a rare, early blizzard hit the Northern Plains states, causing devastation for ranchers who lost tens of thousands of cattle and sheep.
Lucas said those are some of the reasons farmers need an effective safety net and why it cannot be a once-size-fits-all design.
The House Agriculture chairman voiced support for the crop insurance program but said he is not in favor of "applying layers of regulatory bureaucracy" to it. Tying conservation compliance to crop insurance would be a "redundant regulatory burden."
As the conference committee began its first meeting, Wisconsin Farm Bureau sent a letter to the Wisconsin delegation outlining its priorities for the next federal farm bill.
First of all, the farm group lobbied against any further extensions of the old farm bill.
"Another extension would only delay reforms that benefit both farmers and taxpayers. Throughout this process our organization has welcomed reforms such as eliminating direct payments and increasing the ability for farmers to manage their own financial risks with crop insurance," the farm group noted in its letter.
"We will have achieved true reform when farmers can base planting decisions and produce commodities for the marketplace instead of a government program," said WFBF President Jim Holte, a grain and beef farmer from Dunn County.
Because half of Wisconsin's $59 billion annual agricultural economic impact comes from dairy, the federation – representing 61 county affiliates – is particularly interested in dairy policies.
Dairy policy is also one of the areas where there is still significant disagreement between the House and Senate versions of the farm bill.
The House version includes the Goodlatte/Scott amendment to the Dairy Security Act, which eliminates the so-called supply management clause from the bill.
In the Senate version, farmers who wanted to take advantage of government-subsidized margin insurance programs would need to curtail their milk production at certain times when margins became unprofitable.
Wisconsin Farm Bureau said that though it has some reservations, it supports the House version with the Goodlatte/Scott amendment. That version is also favored by the Wisconsin-based Dairy Business Association.
Farm Bureau's letter to state representatives said that since farm bill talks began, their "litmus test" has been that any reforms should not put Wisconsin's dairy farmers and processors at an economic disadvantage from their peers in other parts of the country.
Wisconsin's dairy industry is in a growth mode with a well-publicized goal of producing 30 billion pounds of milk annually by 2020, the letter said.
"The federal component of this equation should be to offer tools that allow farmers to manage their own risk, without hindering growth of Wisconsin's dairy industry.
The supply management provisions in the Senate's Dairy Security Act would have a dampening effect on Wisconsin's expansion efforts," the letter stated.
A federal dairy program "should only exist to provide a safety net in difficult financial situations," WFBF believes.
It said it supports increasing the proposed premium levels and lowering the maximum amount of margin insurance coverage available to dairy farmers.
The farm group also noted that the U.S. Department of Agriculture should be given the authority to annually adjust premiums or margin insurance levels to control program costs, Holte said.
The House bill, Lucas said, was designed to provide regulatory relief to farmers and he is keen to see those parts of the bill remain.
The House bill eliminated an extra permit requirement for the use of pesticides that are already federally regulated and makes certain that farmers who have on-farm gasoline storage are not subject to rules designed for oil refineries, he said.
Other measures he cited include ensuring USDA reviews the Environmental Protection Agency's proposals that could harm farmers; requiring an economic review of Food and Drug Administration regulations; holding agencies to higher standards of scientific integrity; and addressing costs imposed on producers resulting from what he called "irresponsible lawsuits."
New rules for the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration or GIPSA were first proposed over three years ago, and Lucas said producers he talks to still ask that this issue be put to bed once and for all.
"We adopted an amendment to do just that and I will support it during conference negotiations."
Another issue important to the livestock community is the pending World Trade Organization (WTO) case associated with mandatory country-of-origin labeling and the potential retaliation from our trading partners.
"I am hopeful that working together we can prevent the imposition of tariffs on a wide array of products important to many states."
Perhaps the biggest gulf between the House and Senate versions of farm and food policy is in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. (SNAP) – food stamps.
The Senate proposed cuts of $4 billion while the House version proposed $40 billion in cuts over 10 years.
Lucas said he hoped to "find common ground" on the reforms passed in the two houses to preserve "this important safety net for those most in need."
No one who is involved in the conference effort is going to like everything in the bill, Lucas said.
"But, we have a responsibility to reach consensus and do what is best for all of agriculture and rural America," he said. "Let's give certainty and sound policy to our agricultural producers; let's deliver taxpayers billions of dollars in deficit reduction; let's continue to provide consumers the affordable and reliable food supply they have grown accustomed to."