Senate passes Farm Bill by wide margin
Normally the House of Representatives leads in farm policy negotiations, but this year the Senate secured passage of a Farm Bill first on a 64-35 vote.
Political observers said the House will begin marking up its version after the Independence Day holiday break.
The "Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012" passed the Senate after an agreement was made earlier in the week to limit the number of amendments senators could bring. (See related story on Wisconsin's senators.)
Three days of debate led to passage of the measure on June 21.
There had been a logjam of amendments that threatened to derail the whole process, but it was averted by leadership and collaboration from some Republican members, who realized that farmers need to have some policy legislation in place sooner rather than later. Current farm legislation expires Sept. 30.
Leaders of many farm groups praised the Senate action and called for certain programs to be included in the House version when it gets debated.
The versions coming from both houses of Congress need to agree before a Farm Bill can become law.
Wisconsin Farm Bureau President Bill Bruins said "the most significant reform to federal dairy policy in generations" - which is in the Senate version - must remain in the next U.S. Farm Bill.
He was referring to the Dairy Security Act portion of the measure that contains a voluntary capping mechanism to avoid drastic and devastating price swings for dairy farmers - the kind that led to erosion of generations' worth of dairy farm equity in the last few years.
The Dairy Security Act measures, which were largely based on a "Foundation for the Future" plan created at National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) remain in the Farm Bill passed by the Senate.
Bruins was concerned by efforts to remove the market stabilization component of the dairy title - aimed at what many call supply management.
"The intent of the Dairy Security Act would be completely undermined if that were removed," Bruins said. "That's because, without a market stabilization mechanism and significant caps on proposed margin insurance programs, there will be serious and unintended consequences to government coffers and the U.S. dairy industry."
Bruins noted that the voluntary market stabilization component of the Dairy Security Act only takes effect when milk prices dip significantly from an over-supply of milk.
"Lawmakers should remain focused on crafting a Farm Bill that replaces government reliance with empowering farmers with the tools to manage their own risk," he said. "Dairy farmers should not expect to participate in a government program without accepting some responsibility for stabilizing prices."
With the focus of the Farm Bill now shifting to the House, Bruins said he was urging his members to contact their congressional representative now to talk to them about supporting the dairy provisions of the Dairy Security Act.
Wisconsin Farmers Union President Darin Von Ruden said he was pleased that the Senate passed the farm policy measure, especially with the addition of several amendments.
"The bipartisan Farm Bill reduces our deficit by $23 billion while still supporting 16 million American jobs," said Von Ruden. "The bill preserves critical farm safety net programs, helps farmers manage risk, strengthens and streamlines conservation programs, continues feeding Americans in need, and continues critical investment in renewable energy and rural development."
He commented on several key amendments that are important to his organization. One provides funding for rural job creation programs and economic development; another will reduce crop insurance subsidies to farms with a gross adjusted income greater than $750,000.
"This will better target essential taxpayer support to farms that really need the safety net to stay in business providing food for Wisconsin and beyond," Von Ruden said.
Another of the amendments that found its way into the Senate Farm Bill requires conservation compliance in order to be eligible to buy crop insurance, which was something Von Ruden wants to see in farm legislation.
"Rural economic development, sensible and fair farm subsidies and land conservation are among top priorities of Wisconsin Farmers Union," he said. "As the bill moves to the House, we look forward to working with our representatives to continue to improve a Farm Bill critical to the economic and environmental health of our family farms and rural communities."
Conservation groups praised the passage if the Senate's version of farm policy, while noting its shortcomings.
They noted that the Farm Bill is the largest source of funding for conservation on America's working farmland, ranchland and private forest land.
In addition to funding federal conservation and nutrition programs, the bill also authorizes risk management and other programs that influence the decisions of land managers across the country.
"The Farm Bill is the United States' primary means for engaging farmers, ranchers and foresters in stewardship of America's natural resources," said Sara Hopper, agricultural policy director of Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a conservation group that has been active in the last few Farm Bill debates.
Doing its part to trim the federal budget, senators cut $23 billion over 10 years from the Farm Bill, including $6.4 billion from conservation programs.
Hopper said that while these cuts will hurt conservation efforts on the ground, senators made an effort to mitigate the impact of the loss in conservation funding by including policies that will make conservation programs more effective.
Specifically, the Senate bill consolidates some conservation programs and creates a stronger emphasis on leveraging additional resources from local and state governments and other partners who can assist producers in voluntary, cooperative efforts to address conservation priorities.
Senators also voted to link taxpayer-funded crop insurance premium subsidies to requirements farmers must meet for their environmentally sensitive lands in order to receive other farm subsidies.
"With increasing pressures to feed a growing global population, America's natural resources are under more demand and stress than ever before," Hopper said. "Demand for conservation assistance for farmers already outstrips available conservation dollars."
HOUSE ACTION URGED
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) is encouraging urgent House action, now that the Senate has passed its version.
"NSAC congratulates Senate leaders for moving ahead with this bipartisan legislation," said Ferd Hoefner, NSAC policy director. "This debate and vote were important hurdles to overcome for Congress to pass a full reauthorization before the current bill expires on Sept. 30."
The bill includes historic commodity payment limit reforms and renewed investments in a variety of sustainable farm and food programs, but Hoefner called the Senate's measure "far from perfect."
The organization believes federal farm policy could use more agriculture reform, a greater local and regional food focus, and a much greater commitment to economic development and jobs.
"We are also disappointed with the $3.7 billion cut to conservation programs on working farms and ranches."
Hoefner said a number of the amendments passed by senators made significant improvements to the measure.
"Senate adoption of amendments by Sen. Brown (D-OH) on rural development and beginning farmers, Sen. Chambliss (R-GA) on soil and wetland conservation, and Senators Durbin (D-IL) and Coburn (R-OK) on crop insurance subsidy limits brought the bill more in line with the 'reform' and 'jobs' in its title," said Hoefner.
"These amendments, along with others like Sen. Merkley's (D-OR) on crop insurance for organic farmers and Sen. Grassley's (R-IA) on commodity payment limit reform, significantly improved the bill," Hoefner said. "Without passage of these amendments, we could not have supported passage of the final bill."
All eyes now turn to the House of Representatives. The House Agriculture Committee last week announced a delay in their consideration of the bill, but Chairman Lucas (R-OK) said he will move "hell or high water" on the farm bill after the July 4 recess.
House Majority Leader Cantor (R-VA), however, has not listed the Farm Bill for potential action on the House floor this summer and is quoted this week saying he wants to "push the pause button" on the bill and assess the political situation.
"Our message to the House leaders is very simple," said Hoefner. "Now is not the time to hit the pause button. Now is the time to roll up your sleeves and get the bill done on time and in proper order."
With current farm policy expiring on Sept. 30, the House has exactly 17 legislative days to take up and pass the bill before expiration, assuming committee passage the week of July 9.
"The hour is late. It is not yet time to hit the panic button, but the hand must come off the pause button or there will be no bill this year," Hoefner said.