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What's out - and what's next - for the farm bill

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Yesterday when you woke up, you may not have felt different. But farm country did. The federal farm bill expired because Congress wasn't able to pass a new one by the September 30th deadline.

The farm bill is huge. It funds everything from food stamps to wetlands restoration to school nutrition - in addition to helping to pay for commodities like corn, soybeans, milk, and cheese.

So now that there's no farm bill, it's hard to know what's changed. David Sommerstein joins us to sort through it all.

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David Sommerstein
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So David, let’s start with the heart of North Country’s agriculture industry, dairy.  What did dairy lose or perhaps gain yesterday when the farm bill expired?

Well it’s funny, because you hear a lot of debate over whether farm groups are crying wolf here by proclaiming a crisis with the farm bill expiring.  And in fact, the farm bill also expired last time it was up for passage in 2007.

They should be used to it?

Right, so it was passed without much damage a couple months later in December of 2007.  But here’s the US News & World Report’s headline:

NO FARM BILL?  NO PROBLEM, UNLESS YOU’RE A DAIRY FARMER

There is consensus that this does hurt dairy farmers, and here’s why.  The Milk Income Loss Contract, or MILC program, ended.  It reimburses, or it reimbursed I should say, dairy farmers when the federal milk price didn’t keep up with costs of running the farm.  And that could just be the milk price going down, but could also be energy skyrocketing or in this years case feed costs skyrocketing. And the worst part is the amount of reimbursement was going down through September, so it was already getting hard through this last month, and now it’s gone.

So what happens to dairy farmers?

The good news is that the milk price is trending upwards.  The bad news is that because of the drought this summer, feed costs, especially corn, which you feed to the cows through the winter are skyrocketing.  So if you have to buy a lot of feed for the winter, if your corn crop was also doing bad then you may lose some money.

I talked with Mike Kiechle, he owns a 110 cow dairy in Philadelphia near Fort Drum.  And he’s president of the Jefferson County Farm Bureau. And He says basically dairy farmers have no protection right now from bad times until a new farm bill is passed or the current one’s extended.

"Basically, there’s no safety net for the dairy farmer today, there’s no floor.  Depending on your situation, you may not have enough money to cover all of your expense."

Now I was talking with the staff director of the Senate Agriculture Committee and he said there’s a funny wrinkle here. And that is if nothing is done, then the farm bill reverts to the 1949 version, the sort of permanent law of farm bill, and dairy farmers could, could not would, no one really knows this for sure, could end up with two or three times more than they’re used to, because that’s the way things were in 1949.  But we’re a long way from that eventuality.

So, so that’s kind of a mixed message for dairy farmers, but for now, bad news. What about the rest of the farmer community?

The existing farm bill covers crops, the one were coming off of, it covers crops planted in the 2012 season, which you know goes into a little bit of 1013 even, so corn, soybean, fruit and vegetable crops are all covered this year all covered until next planting season.  Fruit and vegetable crops are considered “specialty” crops in the farm bill, and they don’t get much funding anyway.  If the stalemate goes into January, then things will get messy, because winter is when farmers plan and when they take out loans for the next year’s crops.

So we’ve said the farm bill is huge, and it covers everything from wetlands to school and nutrition. What about everything else with this farm bill running out?

A good number of conservation programs signed up their last farmers on Friday, according Chris Adamo, because those programs were ending for all purposes.

So they continued, because they signed up by Friday?

Well they got, yes, they got, they’re not enrolling new farmers. And for wetland and grassland preservation, also some organic programs ended, some rural development programs ended.  Also, some farm to school nutrition programs expire.

Let me stop you there, when you say programs, do you mean something that provides some support, money or whatever is technical or staff supports or something for these programs?

Yes, grants, usually money to help farmers you know preserve a wetland on their fields or to help a farm to school program nutrition program happen.

One note of caution, many of these programs are continuing.  Its sort of, its incredible complicated to figure out exactly which one is which, so if you are enrolled in any of these programs, you should call your main contact and find out what’s happening in your case.

So special note about food stamps, food stamps and nutrition really I think you said count for about two-thirds, anyway, of the farm bill, so what about food stamps?

About 80 billion dollars a year. Food stamps program continues as normal.  It’s written into the permanent language of the farm bill, so food stamp program continues, and you know whether that goes up or down in the next farm bill that remains to be decided.

So back to 1949, seems like a long way to go back for a policy that would apply in 2013. Do we even know what’s in that law, I mean other than farmers may get a lot more money?

Not really, I mean. Chris Adamo, the staff director of the Senate Agriculture committee, who I was talking to at a conference last week. He told me that the Congressional Budget Office hasn’t even scored that bill, hasn’t’ even determined how much it would cost to implement.

So they’re not even thinking about it yet?

Right, and the USDA’s position has been like, well, if Congress does its job we should have a farm bill and we won’t have to worry about it. So you know if it becomes December, you know, then the USDA says well look at that 1949 bill then.

So our last question has to be about the political side of all this. We know the Senate passed a new bill last summer.  The House Agriculture committee also passed a bill.  But the full House never brought it to the floor, because the conservative congressman wanted deeper cuts to food stamps in particular.  So, and now Congress is out until after the election.  What are we hoping for in November?

Well let’s look at two scenarios, give the election.  Let say President Obama wins reelection, and Democrats hold onto the Senate, which they may or may not be independent of each other. But lets just say that happens. Then Congress will try, will likely try to pass some version of the new farm bill. Democrats have been behind this new farm bill, and are likely going to try and push it through in lame duck session.

Chris Adamo says check back just before Thanksgiving.  If you see Congress with a road map toward a new farm bill, and they’ve talked about it, and it’s in the headlines, then that’s a sign something will get done in December.

If Mitt Romney is elected, and especially if Republicans also take the Senate, then you can expect them to scrap the new farm bill, perhaps pass an extension of the current one, and likely start over next year.

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