Farm bill extension 'disappointing'

Wednesday, January 9, 2013
John Schoen encourages one of his dairy cows to move into position to be milked Sunday, Dec. 23, at Schoen Farms Inc., a dairy farm near Oak ridge, Mo. (ADAM VOGLER)

In the wake of policies made during last-minute efforts to keep the nation from falling off the fiscal cliff, local dairy farmers and industry leaders worry about long-term stability. They want lawmakers to more seriously consider the potential effects of not protecting food producers.

Instead of implementing the 2012 U. S. Farm Bill -- also known as the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012 and the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2012 -- to replace the 2008 version, which expired with the federal fiscal year Sept. 30, a retroactive one-year extension of the previous version was enacted. It gives producers just nine months until the issue is taken up again by Congress.

Although averting some aspects of the "dairy cliff" that milk producers faced in the absence of legislation, the extension preserved such protections as drought assistance only in language, failing to allocate any funds.

"Well, it was disappointing, there's no doubt about it," said Dave Drennan, executive director of the Missouri Dairy Association.

Drennan said the dairy industry spent the last three years trying to reach a consensus on dairy policy and was encouraged by the approval of versions of the bill by the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture during the summer. In the end, he said, the U.S. House of Representatives "kicked the can down the road" instead of bringing it to the floor for a vote, leaving farmers to wonder where to go from here.

"I think everybody's catching their breath right now, trying to figure out where we are," Drennan said.

The 2012 U. S. Farm Bill would have saved $23 to 33 billion, depending on the version adopted, compared to the current bill, according to U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, who advocated for the new law. Savings would have come from changes such as eliminating direct payments to farmers in favor of crop insurance and buy-up programs, and trimming the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) formerly known as the Food Stamp program.

Around 80 percent of funding associated with the farm bill goes to nutrition programs such as SNAP, a point of contention that caused blockage of the farm bill by the House.

The extension preserved the Milk Income Loss Contract Program, which compensates farmers when milk prices fall below a certain point. But milk's selling price is just one part of the equation.

Charles Schabbing has owned and operated Ramsey Creek Farms in Cape Girardeau since returning to the family farm in 1971. He said a long-term farm bill is important because it provides price stability to offset fluctuations in input costs, such as feed and fuel, which keep rising.

"We are not going to have any way to plan what is ahead of us," Schabbing said.

Feed expenses are one of the biggest challenges dairy farmers face because the drought and incentives to plant more profitable crops, such as corn, have reduced hay harvests, he said. Grain prices also have gone up and his overall feed costs are 70 to 75 percent higher than they were two or three years ago.

Schabbing said if the one-year extension hadn't been passed, it would have been devastating to farmers and to consumers. Prices would have been set according to the 1949 Farm Act using guidelines barely relevant to the farming industry today, resulting in prices too high for consumers. Still, he'd like to see a more permanent solution and is frustrated by what seems like a lack of interest by legislators.

"I don't know if they are trying to tell us they don't want us or what they are trying to tell us," Schabbing said. "What they don't realize is that without us, they wouldn't be eating."

John Schoen, whose family has farmed in Cape Girardeau County since the 1850s, also believes farmers are undervalued. He said agricultural interests are not very strong among lawmakers because such a small percentage represent farmers compared to urban constituents.

"All they want is a happy consumer with cheap food," Schoen said.

Were it not for programs such as SNAP that benefit non-agricultural parts of the country being wrapped into the farm bill, he said, urban legislators "would probably just dump everything we propose."

"It's terrible," Rep. Emerson said of the process of trying to get the bill passed. "Our leadership just made me furious."

When asked if the nutritional program benefits should be separated from subsidies that support farmers, Emerson said yes, in principal, but in reality it would be impossible.

"If you just take those two groups separately, you'd never get either of those bills passed, which is why they ended up being married in the first place," Emerson said. "You'd never get enough votes to pass either."

Also, she said, the issues are connected because the U.S. Department of Agriculture is responsible for farm programs and nutrition programs.

Emerson said House Speaker John Boehner opposed the farm bill, which derailed the process of bringing it to the House floor, specifically because of language related to dairy farmers. It appeared to her that he felt it gave too much of a safety net to dairy producers. He instead sided with the opposing interests of dairy processors who purchase milk products, she said.

To get a bill passed, lawmakers need to come up with language on which producers and processors can agree, Emerson said.

Emerson said, overall, subsidies are necessary to level the playing field for domestic farmers against major international competitors such as Chile and Brazil, which subsidize food producers "far in excess of what we do."

While the industry and lawmakers regroup in their legislative efforts, Drennan said a letter from the Missouri Dairy Association, Missouri Farm Bureau, Missouri Cattlemen's Association, Missouri Corn Growers Association, Missouri Soybean Association and Missouri Agribusiness Association was sent to the Missouri congressional delegation Tuesday asking that emergency disaster assistance provisions of the extension be funded.

Drennan said everyone in is affected in some way by the farm bill and support programs for farmers are not handouts.

"It's food security," he said.


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