At long last, the Farm Bill race of 2012 is over.
The past week has been a flurry of activity in Congress, as the looming fiscal cliff spurred Washington to action. Despite the public attention on the Farm Bill over the past year, the conclusion to the long drama came not in a fiery showdown but instead slipped – barely noticed – in to the end-of-year fiscal fight. The bill that passed the House on Tuesday night had tucked into it a nine-month Farm Bill extension that pushed the debate off until later this in 2013.
The Fight in Washington
The final fiscal bill vote was 257-167 in the House, with support from a large majority of Democrats and 36% support from Republicans. The Senate had passed a similar bill in the wee hours of Tuesday morning with a vote of 89-8. .
A year’s worth of negotiating came crashing together in those final few days as Senate Agriculture Chair Debbie Stabenow and House Agriculture Chair Frank Lucas worked along with their committees to put together a farm bill extension. However, due to last-minute obstructionism by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, everything from the summer’s bi-partisan compromise – which had passed through the Senate last summer and contained $24 billion in spending cuts – was swept aside with little explanation. With support from Speaker of the House Boehner and Vice President Biden, the extension bill had little chance of failing.
In the words of chairwoman Stabenow, the extension “reforms nothing, provides no deficit reduction and hurts many areas of our agriculture economy.”
The New Bill
There aren’t a lot of winners in the Farm Bill extension. Let’s take a few major points from the bill:
Beginning Farmers and Sustainable Agriculture: None of the programs that the National Young Farmers’ Coalition and the sustainable agriculture community pushed for received support in the bill. This is a huge blow, and came as a surprise, given that even over the weekend there were strong indications that many of these “orphan” programs would receive the same level of support as they did in 2012.
Instead, all these programs – everything from the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) to the National Organic Cost-Share Program to the Value-Added Producer Producer Grant Program (VAGP) – are left with no mandatory funding for 2013. One effect, for example, is that at present, no new farmers will be able to enroll in the Conservation Stewardship Program, designed to assist in improving soil and water conservation. This “blatantly anti-reform” deal, in the words of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, is a bitter pill for the beginning farmers and the sustainable agriculture community to swallow.
Crop Subsidies: One of the few things that almost everyone could agree on is that the direct payment crop subsidies needed to be reformed. The stalled Senate and House bills from last summer, for example, eliminated direct subsidies and instead expanded access to crop insurance. The extension ignored all arguments and continued the program exactly as is, with a one-year price tag of $5 billion.
Dairy Reform: The so-called “dairy cliff” that could have seen milk prices rise to $7 per gallon because of an automatic reversion to a 1949 government price protection system was averted, but not in a way that support the actual dairy producers. Instead of using the language from the Dairy Security Act that was brought up earlier this year, the bill merely extended the current Milk Income Loss Contract (MILC) program that stabilizes prices while benefiting milk processors. In the words of Jerry Kozak, President of the National Milk Producers Federation, the vote “is a devastating blow to the nation’s dairy farmers.”
Food Stamps: The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or Food Stamp program, received an unexpected boon – while earlier Senate and House versions directed cuts to the program, the extension kept the program exactly as is.
It’s important to remember that there is a silver lining. The bill that was rolled into the fiscal cliff resolution is not the normal five-year bill. It is only an extension – pushing the deadline to September 30, 2013 – thus giving Congress the year to work on a real bill. As the new Congress convenes for the first time this week, an early priority will be working on a real Farm Bill – one that will do better to “work for our farmers and rural communities as well as American taxpayers,” in the words of Chairwoman Stabenow.
The countless farmers and food and farm advocates who fought last year for a fair Farm Bill should not take this news as anything more than a temporary setback. Indeed, while the Farm Bill fight of 2012 was overshadowed by the most-hyped and highest-expense election season in American history, 2013 – with it’s new slate of politicians – can focus on true reform with fewer distractions. We in the sustainable agriculture community can continue to gather together, raise our voices, and demand true positive change. Let’s have this eleventh hour vote be not a defeat, but a call to arms.