Farm Bill Extension Overlooks the Family Farmer and Conservation

By: Amos S. Eno
Posted on:01/03/2013 Updated:01/04/2013

The Farm Bill Extension, passed by Congress in fiscal cliff legislation, keeps the country from falling off the dairy cliff, but may not be helpful to family farmers and conservation efforts.

As politicians negotiate, the public awaits. Nothing reflects this part of our political process better than the current situation of the “Farm Bill,” or the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008. The 2008 Farm Bill was an agricultural policy law that created $288 billion in subsidies to promote research and development of energy, conservation, nutrition and rural development programs. It expired in October 2012 after 5 years running. Some of the most notable programs were run by the USDA, such as the Conservation Stewardship Program, Conservation Reserve Program and Wetlands Reserve Program. Also noteworthy, was the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps.  

When the 2008 Farm Bill expired politicians dragged their feet on addressing the next step. Anyone can understand that our country was, and still is, in the midst of confronting monumental policy questions, but that is no excuse for not bellying up to the bar and getting your hands dirty. For weeks Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and a variety of representatives across the country pleaded for the passage of a new farm bill, one that could better address the country’s needs for sustainable agriculture.

Having programs fade by the wayside was not enough to get the attention of policymakers. However, it soon became evident that if a new farm bill was not passed by January 1, old agriculture laws from the 1940’s would be reinstated that could more than double the price of milk. Thus, the “dairy-cliff” became the rallying cry.

On January 3, at the writing of this blog, both the House and Senate passed a nine month extension to the 2008 Farm Bill.  The temporary extension is included in H.R. 8, the “Tax Relief Extension Act,” a tax relief measure created to avoid the fiscal cliff, which is now awaiting the President’s signature.

The Farm Bill extension does not renew the entire Farm Bill of 2008. Instead it reinstates certain provisions, such as the biodiesel tax incentive for 2012 and 2013 and wind energy tax credits. Most notably, it continues costly direct cash payments that are too often given to already profitable businesses, such as giant dairy processors, and is seen as a major blow to small dairy farmers. Full Article. The extension essentially allows the old and unworkable milk policy to continue for the next year. The extension is also seen as a victory for soybean farmers and big Southern agricultural interests.

“The message is unmistakable- direct commodity subsidies, despite high market prices, are sacrosanct, while the rest of agriculture and the rest of rural America can simply drop dead,” says Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. Full Article. 
What is even more detrimental to the family farmer is what the extension does not include. The Farm Bill extension does not provide mandatory funding for energy title programs, which are important for job creation and economic growth in rural America. Nor does it include the specialty crop and organic provisions. There is also a glaring lack of disaster relief for livestock and fruit producers and minimal funding for USDA programs such as the Conservation Stewardship Program, thus preventing farmers from being able to improve soil and water conservation. Full Article. Fortunately, H.R. 8 renewed the enhanced tax incentive for conservation easements for 2012 and 2013 and will be discussed in our next blog entry!

No one is arguing that letting the Farm Bill lapse entirely is preferable to an extension. In fact, the extension provides relief from looming tax hikes and averts us from falling off the “dairy-cliff.” However, there is strong criticism that Congress has passed a less than amenable solution for our country and its family farmers.
National Corn Growers Association President Pam Johnson lamented that, “Once again Congress’ failure to act pushes agriculture aside hampering farmers’ ability to make sound business decisions for the next five years. The (NCGA) is tired of the endless excuses and lack of accountability. The system is clearly broken.” Full Article. 
While a good compromise will leave everyone unhappy, the midnight extension is a temporary fix that leaves family farmers not just unhappy, but without the long-term certainty and the support they deserve, said Vilsack. Similarly, Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said the extension "reforms nothing, provides no deficit reduction and hurts many areas of our agriculture economy."

Family farmers “are not only the caretakers of our nation’s rural lands, but they are also small businesses.” (Read more on how the 2013 change to the estate tax law affects farmers here). The extension of the 2008 Farm Bill does a grave disservice to family farmers and Americans alike because it allows Congress to sidestep comprehensive and progressive reform, thus risking the viability of family farms as a business.  Moreover, Vilsack stated it is a reflection of the fact “that rural America with a shrinking population is becoming less and less relevant to the politics of this country, and we had better recognize that and we better begin to reverse it.”