Lawmakers in Washington bought themselves time back in January, when they were unable to agree on the details of a new five-year farm bill and instead just approved an extension of the 2008 bill — an extension that’s good through Sept. 30.
Now, with that extension set to expire in about two weeks, time is running out again, and lawmakers still can’t agree on certain issues, particularly on food stamps and other nutrition items, which account for about 80 percent of the spending in farm bills.
Brent Boydston, vice president and public policy specialist with the Colorado Farm Bureau, took time out of his schedule to talk with The Fence Post about the latest he’s hearing in Washington.
Below are portions of that conversation:
1. So, with Sept. 30 rolling around quickly, what are you hearing about the farm bill? Is another extension on the way at this point?
A. I just don’t see how Congress can get anything done before the deadline. So, you almost think we’re going to have to set another deadline.
But at the same time, when you look at what (Agriculture) Secretary (Tom) Vilsack’s been saying, and what (House Agriculture Committee) Chairman (Frank) Lucas has been saying ... they’re not saying anything about an extension. In fact, they’re saying they flat-out oppose an extension.
But what I’m very concerned about is that you’re not hearing anything from House leadership about bringing forward nutrition legislation to be discussed.
That right there takes things to a whole other level of concern, as far as getting anything done before Sept. 30?
2. What’s your biggest concern right now with the lack of farm bill activity?
A. Starting off, let’s look at what happen if there’s no extension. As it’s written, we revert back to 1949 laws, programs and regulations if no farm bill is approved, or an extension doesn’t pass.
Very few people today have ever operated under those programs. That means there would be a huge learning curve, just to get up to speed on those programs.
And then, could the USDA even put those programs together? Do they have the data needed to put those programs in place?
If they do pass an extension, that’s a little more reassuring, because we’ll at least be operating under the programs that guys are familiar with now.
But they still won’t reflect any modern-day realities of agriculture. Things have changed drastically in just the past five years for ag.
That’s the whole point of a farm bill — to look at the new realities of the industry and put in place laws and programs to address them.
There’s been a huge failure to do that.
3. Are there particular sectors of agriculture that you’re worried about?
A. Across the board, we need a new farm bill for all of agriculture.
We know what the current farm bill is all about, and how that’s impacting operations now.
But then, with the dairy industry, if nothing is done and we go back to 1949 laws and rules, we see prices of milk go up. And that might be good in short, but in the long run, it could drive consumers away and ultimately hurt them (dairy producers).
Similar impacts would happen with row crops. We’d see a price increase, but under those old programs, you run into quota issues, where farmers would only be able to produce so much, and that would impact the farmers’ ability to take advantage of any high prices.
Then there’s existing conservation programs ... that did not exist in 1949. What happens with those?
What are the implications?
It’s really just the uncertainty, all around, that’s the scariest thing.
4. What in the proposed farm bills is most needed to help agriculture?
A. There are really good things in both ... in particular, the elimination of direct payments.
That’s something that’s drawn outcry from activist groups everywhere, and even farmers and ranchers.
For the most part, everyone is happy to get rid of direct payments, which give ag a bit of a black eye, and instead have major reforms to crop insurance, making the programs more market-based.
In general, we have a farm bill with proposed new programs that are eliminating old, wasteful programs, and streamlining programs to save money.
But, because of inaction in Washington, we might just be stuck with what’s already in place, or revert back even farther.
5. Everyone in agriculture wants a new farm bill. However, are there things being proposed in the farms bills that you or the Colorado Farm Bureau don’t support — items that you’d like to see more discussions on?
A. We’ve taken a good look at everything and have been involved in the conversations.
There’s no such thing as a perfect bill.
But the farm bills we’re seeing — both from the House and Senate — are pretty good.
They reflect modern agriculture, they reflect changes in public opinion, they reflect a changing world economy.
The farm bills that have come forward are better than what we have in place.
We just need to pass the legislation at this point.
But who knows when that’s going to happen? ❖