Farm groups look at options after House action

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Editor’s Note: The following article was written by Christine Souza, associate editor of Ag Alert.

After the U.S. House of Representatives failed to pass a five-year farm bill last week, California farmers and farm organizations are considering the possibilities and still hoping a finished bill can make it out of Congress and be signed by the president by Sept. 30, when the current farm bill is set to expire.

The bill funds nutrition programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, often referred to as the food stamp program, and authorizes a variety of programs related to conservation, pest and disease prevention, trade promotion and other activities. The House rejected the farm bill primarily because of disagreement about how much to reduce funding for nutrition programs.

Josh Rolph of the California Farm Bureau Federation Federal Policy Division called the bill's failure "very disappointing."

"It just adds more frustration for those who rely on certainty in farm policy," Rolph said. "We will now work diligently to ensure a farm bill is passed before the Sept. 30 deadline."

According to Rolph, there are now essentially three realistic options: The House Agriculture Committee can begin anew and draft a revised bill; the House can bring up the version of the farm bill already adopted by the Senate; or Congress can extend current law for another year or two. A fourth option, Rolph said, is that none of the above occurs and federal farm policy reverts to 1949 law, but he said he does not expect that to happen.

The House vote leaves uncertain the immediate future of "safety net" programs for direct-payment commodities such as rice, cotton, dairy and others. Both the farm bill adopted by the Senate and that passed by the House Agriculture Committee eliminated direct payment programs and replaced them with crop insurance programs.

"Cropping plans are already being formulated now for next year," said rice grower Sean Doherty of Dunnigan. "This (uncertainty) throws our potential crop rotation plan into disarray and just adds a lot more stress to what is already stressful enough. It is difficult to budget when you don't know the economics."

California dairy producers expressed support for elimination of the dairy price support program and the Milk Income Loss Contract program, in favor of programs that offer a voluntary gross margin insurance program for dairy farmers.

"From the dairy farmer perspective, we do need a dairy title and a dairy safety net that does provide us with some type of protection. So we need the House to get their act together and to pass a farm bill, get it into conference and see if we can get something to the president's desk that he will sign," said Michael Marsh, Western United Dairymen chief executive officer.

"We need to see a farm bill this year," Marsh said.

Citrus fruit grower Chris Lange of Woodlake said he is concerned about the potential lack of a farm bill and its impact on pest and disease prevention programs and research. Lange in particular mentioned programs addressing what he called "the citrus sector's biggest concern": protecting trees from the fatal disease huanglongbing, or citrus greening, which is carried by an insect called the Asian citrus psyllid.

In addition, he said, the 2008 Farm Bill was the first time that "specialty crops" received their own title within federal farm policy, with programs specifically aimed at fruit, vegetable, nut and horticultural crops. This was a positive shift for California, Lange said, adding that he hopes Congress will be able to produce and pass a farm bill that gives specialty crops the same sort of standing within the bill.

"As specialty crop growers, we feel that we're providing a very healthy product for the consumer, not only domestically but internationally. You certainly want to have the government behind you and when you look at agriculture in California, it would sure be comforting to have a farm bill that is in place; at least we would know what we're living with," Lange said.

American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman said AFBF was "highly disappointed" by the House vote to reject the farm bill.

"It was a balanced bill that would have provided much-needed risk management tools and a viable economic safety net for America's farmers and ranchers," Stallman said. "A completed farm bill is much needed to provide farmers and ranchers certainty for the coming years and to allow the Agriculture Department to plan for an orderly implementation of the bill's provisions."

AFBF farm policy specialist Mary Kay Thatcher called the food-assistance programs "the key" to farm bill passage, with a number of Republicans calling for more than $20 billion in cuts and many Democrats wanting no cuts.

"Hopefully, we'll find a way to bring this bill back up," Thatcher said, "to tweak it enough that we can make everybody happy and get it done and we can go to conference—but it won't be easy."


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