Farm bill still in limbo

REDWOOD FALLS – The farm bill is vital to agriculture’s security, but congressional bickering has stalled its movement and threatens its very existence.

That was the consensus of panelists Tuesday at a Farmfest forum near Redwood Falls.

The panel included Congressman Collin Peterson and Congressman Tim Walz, both Democratic members of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee; Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union; Bob Worth, vice president of the American Soybean Association; and Dale Moore, public policy director with the American Farm Bureau.

According to Johnson, the continued failure of Congress to pass a new farm bill will hurt agriculture by closing down programs.

“What gets lost if we don’t get a farm bill done?” he asked. “The whole energy title disappears. The prosperity in rural America in this last decade has been a result of the work that has been done in the renewable energy sector.”

He went on to list conservation programs, disaster programs, price protection for commodities, specialty crop provisions, and beginner farmer programs.

“The beginning farmer programs will expire,” he said. “What a shame. What does that say about the future of an industry?”

Peterson said the Democrat-controlled Senate passed a version of the farm bill, only to have the Republican-led House remove the nutrition assistance portion of the bill.

“I was opposed to that,” Peterson said. “If we split these bills up, and go to a farm only and a food stamp bill … there will never be another farm bill. … But it will never happen because the Senate will never go for that.”

He said splitting food assistance from the farm bill will keep the bill from passing, largely because urban legislators vote for the bill because their constituents are heavy users of the assistance, while rural legislators’ constituents benefit from the farm bill.

According to Peterson, the House has not appointed conferees and says it will not until a vote is taken on the food stamp portion of the bill after Labor Day.

Peterson said that after having worked for so long on the farm bill, he has a good idea of what a final bill will look, and doesn’t hold out much hope it will pass.

Peterson was not shy in his disdain for members of the Republican Party outside the ag committee, but Walz stressed the need for the parties to work together to get the measure passed. Walz says a farm bill can pass if members of Congress consider what the other side is saying.

“It is going to take understanding that’ compromise’ is not a dirty word,” Walz said. “It is not a capitulation of our values. We can always find savings and efficiency. We need to come together, compromise a little bit, and move this bill.”

Moore said some of the trouble farm agencies are having when talking to legislators is simply getting them to understand the need, especially in relatively good times, for agriculture.

“We are trying to sell why we need to get a farm bill done,” he said. “Too many people don’t understand. Farm bills are written for the bad times, not the good times.”

He said the bill needs to have the food assistance portion included because that section helps farmers. Farmers are successful when people buy the food they grow.

“One of the things that gets lost is the importance of the nutrition part of the bill,” he said. “Twenty-three cents of every dollar comes back to the farmer. It is not just to bridge the urban and rural.”

Worth agreed that compromise is vital.

“There is not a farm bill around that no one had any complaints about,” he said.

Peterson emphasized that he is uncertain if a farm bill will pass by the Sept. 30 deadline, and believes another extension of existing law is likely.

One thing farmers can do to make a difference, according to several panelists: Contact their lawmakers.

“If you are a crop farmer, an extension would be great,” he said. “If you are a dairy farmer, it is not a good deal. If you are a specialty crop farmer, it is not a good deal. I think it is more likely we have an extension than we get this bill done. I hope I am wrong.”