Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Congress goes home… and leaves farmers high and dry

AliciaIt’s going, going... gone.

On September 30, Congress made history when it allowed the farm bill to expire, the first time in history that a Congress has walked away from the critical work of writing and passing a farm bill.

The Farm Bill is essential for both family farmers and eaters. It guides and funds nearly all federal farm and food policies. Everything from the seeds a farmer plants to the food on our kids’ lunch trays to the way a farmer can weather a natural disaster like this year’s historic drought are influenced by the legislation.

Per rules set in place many decades ago, Congress must reauthorize a farm bill every five years (give or take) or else farm programs revert to “permanent law” set from the 1938 and 1949 Farm Bills. That was meant mostly to create a huge incentive for Congress to find agreement and complete new farm bills on time.

Not this time, apparently. The 2008 Farm Bill expired midnight on September 30th—this past Sunday—just as members of Congress returned home for election season.

So what does it mean?

The two biggest programs under the purview of the farm bill — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly called food stamps) and federal crop insurance — are essentially unaffected because Congress already extended these programs in a Continuing Resolution (CR) that will fund the government through March 2013. Those programs account for nearly 90 percent of farm bill dollars, but they don’t come close to accounting for the breadth of programs and policies that support our food system.

If Congress fails to enact a new farm bill by the end of 2012 or extend the 2008 Farm Bill, several other programs will revert to the permanent law written over half a century ago. It would also leave several conservation programs in jeopardy, and all but eliminate the most innovative and forward-looking programs the farm bill has to offer. These include:

  • Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program
  • Conservation Reserve Program — Transition Incentive Program
  • Farmers Market Promotion Program
  • National Organic Certification Cost Share Program
  • Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative
  • Organic Production and Market Data Initiatives
  • Outreach and Assistance to Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers
  • Rural Energy for America Program (REAP)
  • Rural Micro-entrepreneur Assistance Program
  • Specialty Crop Research Initiative
  • Value-Added Producer Grants (VAPG)

These newer, more innovative and forward-looking programs that support a resilient farm and food system should not be left in the dust. They should be prioritized.

There are two paths before Congress. One road (the path recommended by many of our partners) takes us down the fast-track where Congress plows through its political obstacles and finishes a 2012 Farm Bill during the “lame duck” session. The other brings Congress back after the election to extend the 2008 Farm Bill until sometime in 2013, leaving the next Congress to create a new farm bill from scratch, probably under less savory budget conditions.

It’s up to us to hold Congress’ feet to the fire and finish a strong and forward-thinking Farm Bill, this year, at a time when thousands of drought-stricken farmers need it most. Stay tuned for how you can get involved in November when Congress comes back to Washington.

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