Eric Brown
The Fence Post

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January 17, 2014
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Q and A: Months and months later, farm bill picture no clearer

A new farm bill is long overdue, to say the least, and some agriculture experts say there’s as much uncertainty now as there’s ever been.

One of those ag experts is Brad Lubben, an agriculture economist and public policy specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The 2008 farm bill expired on Sept. 30, 2012, and since then lawmakers — struggling to agree on what farm legislation should look like for the next five years — have only put in place extensions and have continually missed deadlines.

There are reports that the Farm Bill Conference committee is close to getting a deal done, but, as Lubben explained, there are still a couple sources of disagreement in Washington. And before too long, he added, lawmakers will have to hash out their differences and get a bill to the House and Senate for a vote, as ag- and nutrition-support programs begin to expire, or pass yet another short-term farm bill extension, or perhaps even pass a two-year extension of the 2008 farm bill.

“Things could still go a number of ways,” he said. “We’ve been at this for a while now, but there’s still no clear picture of where we’re headed.”

Below are portions of a recent conversation with Lubben:

Q. So, best-case scenario, how soon could we have a farm bill passed by the Farm Bill Conference committee and have it up for a vote in the House and Senate?

A. Well, the appropriations bill has dominated discussion this week, so we haven’t seen much progress ... and next week, they (the Farm Bill Conference members) won’t be convening. So, best-case scenario, if they’re in fact close to having a deal done, they could come back on Tuesday, Jan. 28, and by early to mid February, we have a bill voted on by the House and Senate. But while reports say we’re close to having a deal done by the Farm Bill Conference committee, there are still a couple issues at hand.

Q. What are still those issues at hand?

A. The two major issues still in play include dairy legislation. We’re looking to go to more of a margin-based dairy support system, rather than a price-based support system, but where the debate stands in all of the dairy talk is over whether or not milk-supply control should be a part of the legislation. The difference between having supply control or not, from my understanding, could add up into the hundreds of millions of dollars ... so it’s something they’re discussing seriously.

The other issue is payment limits (a reform that would put a cap on commodity program payments at $250,000 for a farming couple and allow one off-farm “manager” to claim a payment. It closes a loophole that has allowed multiple partners in a large farm to claim to be part of a farm’s management and receive payments).

In addition to that, once we have the Farm Bill Conference committee agree on those things and put a bill before the House and Senate, I could see the food and nutrition titles becoming an issue again. They (the Farm Bill Conference committee) has drafted a bill that cuts $8.8 billion from the food and nutrition programs. The House originally wanted $40 billion in cuts, and the Senate wanted only $4 billion — debates that, for a long time, held up the farm bill conversation. So, while the issue seems to be resolved within the Farm Bill Conference committee, I could see the issue coming up in later discussions, with some wanting the cuts to go deeper, and others saying the cuts go too far.

Q. What if those issues can’t be hashed out?

A. Then we’re probably looking at another extension of the farm bill. Reverting back to the permanent 1949 law ... as we’re supposed to do in the case that we don’t have farm legislation ... just isn’t feasible, and would be disastrous. It just isn’t compatible with today’s agriculture, at all. So, if we can’t get a farm bill passed soon, we’re probably going to see yet another extension, even though you have leadership saying they won’t allow it. Whether it’s a short-term or a long-term extension, it’s yet to be seen.

Q. You’ve spoken before about a 2-year farm bill extension. Do you still see that as a possibility?

A. It’s certainly still a possibility, and there is some support for that. A short-term extension makes sense, if the Farm Bill Conference committee really thinks they’re close to getting a deal done, and just need a little more time. There are some lawmakers, though, who want to scrap what’s been done, and just start anew after the mid-term elections later this year, with new lawmakers.

Q. I know a number of farmers and ranchers want a new farm bill badly, because the existing programs are outdated, they say, and don’t work well in an ag industry that’s changed drastically in just the past few years. Is there any support from the ag community for a 2-year farm bill extension?

A. Some ag guys are in support of it ... mainly because it would at least give them some kind of certainty going forward with the programs they have to work with. But, as I’ve cautioned before, an extension of the farm bill might not include direct payments, since there’s so much political pressure — from most of the ag industry and a lot of others — to get rid of them. But farmers and ranchers were only wanting to get rid of direct payments if the crop insurance safety net was strengthened in a new farm bill. It’s possible we get a farm bill extension without direct payments, and obviously without strengthened crop insurance, and that’s certainly not what farmers want.” ❖


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The Fence Post Updated Mar 17, 2014 11:34AM Published Jan 29, 2014 12:57PM Copyright 2014 The Fence Post. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.