Farm Bill revisions up in the air as deadline nears
VERMONT — Vermonters are watching with bated breath as lawmakers in Washington, D.C., debate the next Farm Bill, a law renewed every five years that defines federal agricultural spending and legislation.
Or rather, Vermonters are trying to watch. Even those keeping tabs on the process, however, say they have little idea of what’s being discussed behind closed doors.
“I think everybody’s just holding their breath,” said Dave Rogers, policy advisor at the Northeast Organic Farming Association’s Vermont chapter, called NOFA-VT.
That’s because a group of just four legislators — two senators and two representatives — is putting together a package of agricultural budget cuts that, if passed by the entire Congress, would become a Farm Bill designed to govern spending starting in 2013. The goal is to eliminate $23 billion in federal spending on agricultural over time.
If completed, the proposal will be rolled into a larger deficit reduction package due Wednesday, Nov. 23, from the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (termed the “super committee”), a 12-member, bipartisan group of legislators tasked with cutting $1.5 trillion in national spending over the next decade.
But on Friday, as the deadline drew near and the super committee reportedly remained at an impasse in its own negotiations, there was also little news on the Farm Bill, which was originally scheduled to be completed by Nov. 1.
The four members of Congress working to craft the agricultural spending cuts are Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chair and ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, as well as Reps. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and Collin Peterson, D-Minn., chair and ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee.
In an Oct. 14 letter that proposed the $23 billion deficit reduction plan, the four lawmakers touted the importance of the agricultural safeguards the Farm Bill provides.
“Farming and ranching are extremely high-risk undertakings — as clearly demonstrated by the devastating weather events across the nation this year,” the letter read. “America’s producers need tools to manage their risk in case of natural disasters and increasingly volatile prices; the Farm Bill provides those tools.”
The letter also emphasized that the Farm Bill includes conservation and wildlife programs that protect the land and waterways, as well as nutrition programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Bob Parsons, an agricultural economist with the University of Vermont Extension, pointed out that a significant portion of USDA spending goes to nutrition programs like SNAP. According to the USDA Fiscal Year 2012 budget summary, nutrition assistance programs will comprise just under 75 percent of the department’s estimated $145 billion spending this year.
“Those are some of our social safety net programs that I think would be a hard sell to cut,” said Parsons.
Nevertheless, an agriculture appropriations bill that outlines spending for the current fiscal year passed the House on Thursday afternoon, cutting spending for the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program by more than $600 million.
But in the upcoming Farm Bill, Parsons said that what the ax is likely to fall on is agriculture, forestry and conservation programs. While, like all members of the public, he is unsure what exact conversations are happening surrounding the Farm Bill, Parsons said the two areas most likely to change are the ones that involve payments to farmers: crop insurance and direct payments — subsidies given to commodity farmers each year for growing corn, soybeans, cotton, rice and wheat. Subsidies in particular, he said, are “low-hanging fruit.”
Some sources speculate that direct payments will be drastically reduced or done away with completely, and at the very least, Parsons said, any bill that comes out of the deficit reduction process will show significant changes in crop insurance and direct payments to farmers.
“(Subsidies are) something that’s probably going to be dramatically changed,” said Parsons, “but (Vermont is) a very minor player in that.”
He said the payments were originally meant to bolster the price paid to farmers for their crops while lowering the price of commodities to the consumer. But since the growth of ethanol programs, said Parsons, the role of direct payments in corn farming in particular have subsided, and the price of corn is now more than three times what it was when Congress first passed ethanol legislation in 2005.
More significant for Vermont, said Parsons, will be any dairy legislation that comes through in the coming months. Rep. Peterson and Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, this September introduced a dairy reform bill to Congress, but though the Congressional Budget Office determined the new provisions would show savings, the bill has come under fire by dairy co-ops across the nation for a variety of reasons.
“Everyone wants different provisions in it,” said Parsons. “They’re just trying to find something that’s not worse than what we have now.”
Meanwhile, groups with an interest in agriculture, from conservation organization to consumer rights groups, crop-based lobbyists to organic advocates, continue to seek information on the Farm Bill process. All are agreed on one thing, though: there’s not enough transparency in the discussions.
“It’s unprecedented — draconian, really,” said NOFA-VT’s Rogers. “It short-circuits the democratic process.”
Rogers said NOFA is pushing its contacts in Washington to stay apprised of the latest happenings.
And though Vermont has no representation at the current negotiating table, both Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., are working to keep Vermont’s voice in the crafting of the next Farm Bill. Rogers said he hopes their voices will help prevent cuts to organic agriculture and conservation programs.
“We’re fortunate in Vermont to have people who can carry the banner (in Washington),” Rogers said.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].
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