Farm Bill Update: Time to Weigh In

What do farmers want? A Farm Bill. When do they want it? This year.

by Dani Yokhna
Farmer at sunset
Courtesy iStockphoto/Thinkstock

The 2012 Farm Bill process is back in the news with Senate hearings now taking place. The Food, Conservation and Energy Act (aka Farm Bill) is the piece of legislation that dictates the subsidies and insurance for large-scale and commodity agriculture and also contains programs for local food, conservation, organic research and other programs important to small-scale, sustainable farmers. With the current Farm Bill, which was enacted in 2008, expiring on Sept. 30, 2012, a glance at the legislation’s timeline shows it’s slightly—but not terribly—behind schedule.

Think back to the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction—the “supercommittee”—from fall 2011. This committee’s work was to include the House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture and the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry’s Farm Bill.

“When that committee failed, that proposal failed, as well,” explains Traci Bruckner, assistant director of rural policy programs for the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Neb.

The House and Senate have seven months to put together an agreeable Farm Bill, but Bruckner explains, “It just takes a while to come to agreement on some things. … It can be a frustrating process.”

In an ideal year, this Farm Bill process would be right on schedule.

“The whole supercommittee process prevented people from having more hearings,” explains Dennis Nuxoll, managing director of federal policy for the American Farmland Trust.  He says public-hearing transparency was short-circuited, leading the supercommittee’s efforts last year to be dubbed “the secret Farm Bill” and leaving less time for public hearings this year.

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What Happens Now
The Senate is holding its Farm Bill hearings in February and March 2012. The first was on Feb. 15, 2012, focusing on energy and rural economic development. Future hearings are:

  • Feb. 28: Conservation
  • March 14: Nutrition and Local Foods
  • March 21: Commodities and Insurance Programs

(Watch videos of and read more about the hearings at the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry website.)

At this point, the Farm Bill is debated and voted on in the Senate and the House before being signed into law—in theory by Sept. 30, 2012, which is especially challenging because this is a presidential election year.

“The question is whether or not we get to it this year,” says Bruckner, who points out that this is not the first time this question has been raised, as the 2008 Farm Bill was actually supposed to be passed in 2007. “One of the concerns is whether or not they just do an extension of the current Farm Bill. There are quite a few programs that don’t have baseline funding.”

This means they don’t have a standing budget line in the Farm Bill and need to be given appropriations with the passing of the next Farm Bill.

American Farmland Trust, the Center for Rural Affairs and more than 60 other organizations sent a letter to the House and Senate agriculture committee leaders this month asking for a timely passage of the Farm Bill. The letter states:

“We the undersigned have heard calls for an extension of current law. We ask you to reject these calls for delay and aggressively act to ensure that a new, comprehensive farm bill is passed this year. … A temporary extension of current policy creates tremendous uncertainty while serving to further none of [the country’s farming, nutrition, rural economic development and agricultural research] needs.”

Nuxoll explains, “There is a general fear that if we wait until 2013, the budget circumstances will be even worse than they are today.” New and still-developing programs contained in the Farm Bill, such as conservation efforts and local-foods programs, could be the first to have funding reduced.  “It’s better to try this year with a tight budget but a doable budget versus next year, when the situation could be even more dire.”

If a Farm Bill does not pass before the end of September, an extension of the current legislation will have to be passed.

“That extension is just as difficult to pass as the full Farm Bill, so why not pass the full Farm Bill?” Nuxoll asks.

Get Involved
“I think it’s important for [small-scale, sustainable farmers] to engage in the debate,” Bruckner says. “It’s important for people to stay attuned to the process.”

To join the debate, contact your legislators. That might sound intimidating, but you can make it as simple or as involved as you’d like. Pick up the telephone, send an email, send a letter or schedule a visit. Let your congressman, senator, and the members of the House and Senate agriculture committees know what elements of the Farm Bill are important to you and why.

“It’s really critical for small- and mid-scale family farmers to weigh in on those issues,” Bruckner says.

The American Farmland Trust’s microsite features a rundown of issues covered in the Farm Bill, news of the Farm Bill’s progress and articles about how the legislation impacts farmers of all sizes.

Visit these links to find the contact information for your representing bodies:

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