New Year's Eve proved disastrous for farmers, consumers and the environment. That was the day Congress kicked the Farm Bill can down the road, failing to pass a new five-year law with much needed reforms and improvements — or even the reasonable short-term extension that was on the table.
Instead, legislators passed an awful nine-month extension as part of the "fiscal cliff" bargain. The bill includes no reform of huge payments to the big commodity crops, no disaster assistance and no extension of funding for a range of important programs — from farmers markets to rural micro-enterprise to organic research. The silver lining? We now have nine months to push for a decent Farm Bill that keeps what's working and reforms what's broken. We're rolling up our sleeves.
The list of hits to programs that support farmers is long in this short-term fix. In addition to the programs mentioned above, there will be no funding for value-added agriculture, beginning farmers, minority farmers, organic agriculture or renewable energy. In effect, the deal will also keep farmers from being able to improve soil and water conservation practices through the Conservation Stewardship Program — despite the many clear success stories this program has supported.
The horrible Farm Bill extension was passed despite the fact that Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and House Agriculture Committee Chair Frank Lucas (R-OK) together wrote a responsible extension bill and presented it to the House on December 29.
While not perfect, it was at least fair and comprehensive, and would have made very modest cuts in commodity crop payments to provide $472 million in support of 21 different programs including conservation, fruit and vegetable production, energy, and rural development — all now zeroed out.
Both House and Senate versions of the 2012 Farm Bill under consideration earlier in the year in fact eliminated direct payment subsidies for commodity production. Yet the deal that was just struck locks those egregious subsidies in for another full year, at a $5 billion price tag — no reform there!
On the positive side, the nine-month extension of the basic elements of the 2008 Farm Bill allows USDA to restart programs that still have baseline funding but were held up since the bill expired September 30, 2012. This includes programs such as the Wetlands and Grassland Reserve Programs, the Seniors Farmers Market Nutrition Program, and the Specialty Crop Block Grant program.
There's good reason to believe that the agriculture committees in both the House and Senate will present new bills this spring. Whether those bills will be more closely aligned than the summer 2012 versions, especially on the divisive commodity subsidy and food stamp spending provisions, remains to be seen.
Together with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) we commend the Agriculture Committee leadership for trying to pass a more responsible extension measure. And on behalf of our members and partner organizations across the country, we recommit ourselves to getting a true reform Farm Bill passed in 2013.
We'll be getting our message to our senators and representatives this spring, especially those on the Senate and House Agriculture Committees and those to whom they listen.