Time running out for U.S. farm bill
As deadline looms, lawmakers make a last-ditch effort to resolve funding and policy disputes.
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"It's the only improvement in the safety net for farmers," says Katy Ziegler, vice president of government relations for the National Farmers Union, which announced last month it would prefer no farm bill to one that excluded a permanent disaster program. "If farmers don't have a crop, the safety net is irrelevant."Skip to next paragraph
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Others say the disaster program is among the worst in a slew of bad ideas, since it encourages farmers to cultivate marginal land – in particular, ecologically valuable grasslands – that should never be used for agriculture.
"It's kind of a one-two punch for the environment," says Sara Hopper, an attorney at the Environmental Defense Fund, noting that the Senate reduced spending on conservation programs for the disaster program. "Not only are you taking away money desperately needed for conservation, but you're putting it into a program that actually encourages intensive agriculture on marginal lands."
Averting an extension of the old bill
Ms. Hopper says it would be relatively easy for Congress to keep the spending within baseline projections if it was willing to cut into direct payments or subsidies to farmers. But she, like others, mostly just wants the new bill passed.
Both the House and Senate versions include significant increases to conservation programs and policy changes. A new bill is needed to keep key programs funded, she says, including ones that help restore wetlands and encourage ranchers to keep grazing land intact.
Ms. Ziegler, too, emphasizes the importance of passing a bill soon. "We have folks who have just begun to harvest their winter wheat, and they're doing so without knowing what sort of policy they have as their safety net," she says.
A finished farm bill by the April 18 deadline is highly unlikely, say those close to the negotiations. But if conferees can come to an agreement on the funding by Wednesday, they are likely to get approval for two to four more weeks time to get the final details ironed out.
Otherwise, a one-year extension of the current farm bill is likely, though House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D) of Minnesota has said he may push for letting the bill lapse. The antiquated 1938 and 1949 laws would then be in effect, providing heavy leverage to force Congress to quickly pass a new bill.
A few critics, meanwhile, say the priority shouldn't just be getting a new bill passed, but getting a good one, and that far more reforms are needed.
If nothing else, the struggle with the bill this past year has given many Americans a chance to recognize the reach and importance of legislation that affects far more than just farmers, says Daniel Imhoff, author of "Food Fight: The Citizen's Guide to a Food and Farm Bill." He'd rather see Congress go back to the drawing board – reconsidering the massive payments to large corporate farmers, or federal subsidies for the most environmentally damaging and least healthy foods – than pass the bill currently before them.
"This is a year for farm bill literacy," says Mr. Imhoff. "You have to get beyond these policies that are stale and stagnant… We need a 21st-century farm bill in the worst way."