When it comes to a completed farm bill, Arizona Farm Bureau President Kevin Rogers’s message to Congress is simple — get it done.
“We need to know what the rules of the game are for the next five years and that’s what the farm bill has always done for us,” Rogers said. “It’s told us what the rules are going to be and we need to have those answers.”
However, getting those answers could take a while as what has normally been a bipartisan bill has been caught up in the partisan gridlock that has crippled Congress over the past two years.
At issue is the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, otherwise known as the food stamp program. It has always been a compromise between the rural members of Congress and members representing urban areas.
“Traditionally the farm bill has always been bipartisan and it’s always included SNAP,” said U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, a Democrat from Arizona’s 1st District.
The Senate passed a $955 billion farm bill in June that included funding for SNAP while the House passed a version for only farm commodities shortly before the August recess. The House came back in September to pass a food stamp bill that included $40 billion in cuts over the next 10 years.
Now the Senate and House must come together to hash out a final bill to send to President Barack Obama.
“The farmers are very concerned about it and that’s one of the things that we’ve been talking about,” Kirkpatrick said during a stopover in Casa Grande in early September. “The farm bill is not a done deal yet. There are some things that need to be worked out. Honestly they need to be worked out in a bipartisan way.”
The current farm bill that was passed in 2008 was extended for one year. That extension expired on Sept. 30 and with larger issues at hand, including avoiding a government shutdown and the raising of the debt ceiling, Kirkpatrick feels another continuing resolution will come about.
It’s something that doesn’t sit well with Rogers.
“It’s not good. They need to pass the new law so we know how to plan for the future,” Rogers said. “Most of agriculture is family farms and we need to know what’s expected and what’s going to happen over the next several years.
“A continuing resolution is a Band-Aid. We want this thing fixed so we don’t have to worry about this for the next five years. We need a finished farm bill. A continuing resolution just prolonged it. Let’s get this thing fixed and move on.”
The biggest impact to local farmers could be the end of direct payments. The Senate bill calls for $18 billion in cuts for direct payments to farmers. However, a provision in the House bill allows for $823 million to be paid to cotton farmers over a two-year period.
“Really what the direct payments were there for was to give a little level of support to the industry and encourage farmers to switch from one crop to the next so you would have the flexibility to grow a crop that was going to give you a better chance to pay your bills and make a profit,” Rogers said.
If the Senate’s call for the end of direct payments ends up in the final version of the bill, expect an expanded crop insurance program to take its place.
It’s something that the chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan, addressed to Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake Aug. 1 on the Senate floor.
“Farming is an extremely risky business,” Stabenow said. “Farmers plant seeds in the spring and hope that by the time the harvest rolls around there will have been enough rain and the right temperatures to give them a good crop.
“That is why we straightened crop insurance and made that available to farmers growing different kinds of crops — because we want farmers to have skin in the game. As I have always said, that is about farmers paying a bill for crop insurance, not getting a check from the direct payment program.”
Rogers, who is a cotton farmer, said it’s too early to tell how the change from direct payments into a new type of crop insurance would affect Arizona farmers.
“Until we see how this new insurance is going to work, it’s hard to tell,” he said. “In the past insurance hasn’t really worked for Arizona because we don’t have any disasters like they do in parts of the Midwest and Texas.”
With Congress busy tackling the issue of the debt ceiling, the farm bill is expected to be kicked down the road. But with the expiration of the latest extension at the beginning of the month, the country is currently operating without a farm bill.
If something doesn’t happen before the end of the year, experts are predicting the dairy industry will be hit hard by reverting back to a 64-year-old law that could increase dairy prices to a high of $6 for a gallon of milk.
“If they don’t get something done by Christmas then these triggers will start to happen,” Rogers said. “The process will begin to happen and the dairy will be the first thing to go.”
If things drag out longer, Rogers said the U.S. Department of Agriculture will start to lose funding, which would affect meat inspections and conservation programs along with researching what is going on in agriculture.
“It affects just about every part of our lives that we do,” Rogers said. “They really need to get after it and come up with some compromises and get a good bipartisan farm bill passed. There is enough going on in this world (without) worrying about our food supply.”