Sen. Bennet believes Farm Bill could come together this year | TheFencePost.com

Sen. Bennet believes Farm Bill could come together this year

Eric Brown
Greeley, Colo.

Photos by JOSHUA POLSON / jpolson@greeleytribune.cSen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., listens to Morris Ververs as he speaks about the Environmental Quality Incentives Program during the farm bill discussion held on the University of Northern Colorado campus Wednesday afternoon. Bennet, along with other Senate Agriculture Committee members, plans to have the bill on the floor this summer.

For months, farmers and ranchers have been told they’ll have to wait until 2013 before they get their new farm bill.

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., encouraged them Wednesday afternoon to believe otherwise.

During farm bill discussions on the University of Northern Colorado’s campus in Greeley, Bennet said he and fellow Senate Agriculture Committee members are looking to have a bill on the floor as early as this summer and have a new piece of legislation in place by the end of 2012 – not next year, which most experts consider to be a more realistic time frame, given that this is an election year.

In expressing his confidence, Bennet reminded attendees – which included farmers, ranchers and representatives of agriculture organizations from across the state – that lawmakers from both sides of the aisle agreed in November on $23 billion in cuts that should be made to agriculture and nutrition programs. However, those recommendations failed to go forward when the budget supercommittee couldn’t reach a bipartisan agreement on how to reduce the rest of the nation’s deficit.

“Just because it’s an election year doesn’t mean we can’t get anything done,” Bennet said. “We were the only group that could come to a bipartisan agreement then.

“We can do it again.”

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Bennet and other lawmakers have been piecing together the 2012 Farm Bill for months.

Farm bills are the primary agricultural and food policy tool of the federal government. The 2008 Farm Bill – a $288 billion, five-year bill that was passed into law June 18, 2008 – is set to expire Sept. 30.

Farm bills encompass conservation and commodity programs, trade, rural development, farm credit, agricultural research, food and nutrition programs and marketing. They have huge implications for agriculture operations – certainly those in Weld County, which collectively produce more than $1 billion in agriculture goods each year, ranking them in the top 10 in the nation.

U.S. lawmakers from Colorado, including Bennet, have lately been pushing for passage of a new farm bill during 2012.

In addition to providing a timeline for farm bill progress, Bennet focused much of the 11/2-hour presentation on the Conservation Title of the farm bill, which consists of programs that help farms and ranches stay in agricultural production, and help producers implement farming and ranching practices that better preserve water and soil quality.

Bennet – along with producers in attendance and state and national conservation officials who joined him at the head table, which included USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Chief Dave White from Washington – stressed that America’s food production is a critical part of the nation’s security, and that the next farm bill must enable producers to continue providing fuel and fiber to the world.

Conservation programs are essential to such a goal, many stated during Wednesday’s discussions.

Many who spoke talked highly of existing conservation programs – referring to the programs as federal government dollars well spent, and some detailed how the programs have been critical in helping their families stay on their land and keep it productive, adding they like the programs that are self-implemented and incentive-based.

Bennet and White said with a tighter budget providing the same conservation services will be difficult. They explained that conservation programs in the next farm bill, as drafted, will be simplified and focused on the four primary conservation functions; working lands, easements, regional partnerships and the conservation reserve program. The conservation reserve program allows agricultural landowners to receive annual rental payments and cost-share assistance to establish long-term, resource-conserving covers on eligible farmland.

While the conservation programs will be streamlined, all major functions of the programs will be maintained, as was explained at the meeting.

Stepping away from conservation talks, producers brought up other concerns regarding farm legislation. Weld County farmer Bob Winter said the federal government needs to set food-safety regulations for producers and stick with them, noting that it’s been difficult for farmers to comply with those regulations since they change so often.

He also said if cuts are made to the direct payment program, as is expected, much concentration should be put into creating a crop insurance program that can provide a safety net for producers if disaster strikes.

Direct payments were created in 1996 as a temporary measure to help farmers struggling with low commodity prices, but they have come under attack as the government seeks broader cuts in spending, and with agricultural commodity prices high in recent years and many producers recording record incomes in 2011.

Lawmakers and farm groups have generally agreed that the $5 billion a year in direct payments paid out to farmers should be eliminated.