An old proverb states that a job worth doing is a job worth doing well. Our farm bill and all it offers our nation as an engine for commerce, a safety net for all Americans facing economic hardship and as a spur to greater environmental stewardship is a task worth doing right. Make no mistake, whether the 112th Congress completes this job in the form of a bipartisan comprehensive five-year plan or simply kicks the can down the road with a stop-gap extension, its handling of the farm bill process will likely help decide its legacy and the future of our food system.
Time is running short and clearly there is no lack of big-ticket items that need to be addressed in this lame duck session. Some pundits pontificate that consideration of the farm bill could easily be postponed for consideration next year. But, it is certain that Congress must either pass the pending farm bill or some type of extension before the recess, or accept the fact that outdated farm policies put in place more than 70 years ago will begin impacting families all across America. That’s right; unless Congress acts quickly, much of our farm policy will revert back to laws passed in the 1930s and 40s.
Since some crops were not covered under the Depression-era farm laws, an extension bill would not manage many of the risks associated with drought, market volatility or geopolitical strife. Other crops would needlessly be supported at three to four times the current level. The bottom line is that reverting to those old laws not only impacts agriculture, a sector that has performed well during our nation’s economic crisis, but will impact consumers and taxpayers at a time when fiscal constraint is needed to rein in our federal budget deficit.
From my perspective, passage of a five-year comprehensive bill would be much easier than only attempting an extension of current law. An extension bill only raises more questions than it answers. Like, will farmers and their lenders continue to have the same assurances for the coming year as they have had the last five years or do they need to plan for changes? Will those changes look like what Congress and farmers have been working on for the last several years or just reductions in what has been in place? For our nation’s dairy farmers, will they have to continue without the Milk Income Loss Contract program, as they are now? What about all of the livestock farmers that were devastated by the drought and have not been eligible for any disaster assistance?
Why is this important? Over the last two years, but especially this year, livestock farmers have suffered tremendous losses due to drought. Disaster programs that would have helped them expired in 2011. Many fruit growers lost their entire crop this past year because of a late freeze and other farms have been damaged by natural disasters including Hurricane Sandy. In the absence of a real farm bill how will Congress address disaster coverage for livestock and other farmers?
Farmers are proud stewards of the land and our vital natural resources, but Congress’ failure to act has put a stop to many important environmental efforts and planning. What will the Conservation title look like? Both the Wetlands Reserve Program and the Grassland Reserve Program have expired. There are other conservation programs expiring as well.
The bottom line is that there will be much debate on how many programs will be extended, how many will be left on the cutting room floor and where the funding will come from to pay for those extensions. But, when it comes to the food system of our country as well as consumers’ and taxpayers’ pocketbooks to help pay for that food system, isn’t the farm bill worth doing right?
Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, is a rice and cattle farmer from Columbus, Texas.