The simultaneous shutdown of the federal government and expiration of the farm bill wasn’t welcome news for the northeast Colorado agriculture industry, already enduring record flooding this month and rains that have delayed harvest.
Lawmakers’ failure to avert a shutdown of the federal government last week has temporarily closed Farm Service Agency offices, among many others, leaving some flood-impacted farmers and ranchers waiting for financial assistance to clean up or repair their damaged fields and pastures, according to Weld County, Colo., FSA Director Jeff Wilson.
“It’s just been one thing after another lately,” said Wilson, who, on furlough and unable to work at the office Tuesday, was volunteering to help with repairs at flooded homes in Greeley.
“We’d love to be helping more, but there’s not much we can do right now,” Wilson added, noting that many land owners want to repair their fields soon, before winter weather rolls into the region.
Wilson said with FSA offices closed until further notice, farm payments can’t be made to farmers and ranchers, which, in October, include Conservation Reserve Program annual rental payments for land owners on ground they’ve taken out of production (to help reduce soil erosion and enhance water supplies and quality), as well as Direct and Counter-Cyclical Program payments.
But his biggest concern right now, Wilson said, is for those with fields impacted by the floods.
Farmers and ranchers with damaged or debris-filled property could be eligible for financial assistance to help with their recoveries, through the federal government’s disaster loan options, or Emergency Conservation Program.
The bulk of those programs, though, require consulting with the FSA office before doing repairs, and Wilson said this week he isn’t sure how soon he and his colleagues will be back in the office to help land owners get started.
Farm bill failures add to frustration
While the federal government shutdown has limited implementation of existing programs, the future of farm policy and programs remains a mystery, since lawmakers were unable to pass a new five-year farm bill before an extension of the old one expired last week.
Both the House and Senate have passed versions of new farm bill legislation, but haven’t hashed out the differences between the two in a conference committee.
Last week marked the third time during the past year lawmakers have missed a deadline to pass new farm legislation.
“There’s too many depressing things going on. ... I can’t even begin to think about politicians right now,” said a chuckling but frustrated Dave Petrocco with Petrocco Farm in Brighton, Colo.
Petrocco said about 110 acres of onions and cabbage were destroyed in fields that flooded, after losing other crops to hail storms in August. Altogether, he said he’s lost nearly 30 percent of his crops this year, and there isn’t insurance available for many of the specialty crops he grows, or it’s too expensive in some cases.
One of Petrocco’s fields is still covered with sand and debris, and he’ll explore all options of finding financial assistance — maybe looking into the federal government’s Emergency Conservation Program, he said — to help with the cleanup efforts.
But, like many others, he’ll have to wait until the federal government employees go back to work before he can consult with needed FSA personnel.
It’s also frustrating to Petrocco that farm bill progress is still going nowhere, since both the House and Senate versions of the farm bills make strong investments into programs for specialty crops — like the crops Petrocco grows.
The longer the farm bill talks drag out, the longer he’ll have to wait for those programs to go into effect.
Across the board, farmers say it’s vital to understand what kind of programs and safety nets will be available to them when they decide what to plant each year.
Local producers say they don’t want lawmakers to pass another farm bill extension, like they did in January, after initially letting the 2008 farm bill expire on Sept. 30, 2012.
They say much has changed for the agriculture industry since the existing farm bill was passed five years ago, and stress that many of its programs are out-of-date — like the dairy safety net that reacts to drops in milk prices but doesn’t take into account the extreme increases in dairymen’s feed costs in recent years.
In some cases, they say, the 2008 farm bill’s programs give agriculture “a black eye” — such as the Direct Payment subsidies, which farmers say are no longer needed with today’s historically high commodity prices that make farming more profitable than it was in the past. ❖