Agriculture is Less About Politics, More About Policy on the 2012 Farm Bill

By Jon Scholl

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

News stories and commentaries describe a federal government that is dysfunctional, hampered by a “permanent election cycle” and shackled by “partisan gridlock.” Sadly, that cynical view has spilled over into the discussion of this year's Farm Bill, with many observers saying a Farm Bill is unlikely to be completed this year.

That pessimistic outlook, however, is not necessarily warranted, because when it comes to addressing the task at hand, agriculture always has operated differently from other sectors.  From the USDA, to K Street, to the halls of Congress, agriculture historically has been less partisan, more productive; less about politics and more about policy.  A case in point: under the deficit reduction deal reached by Congress last year, all Congressional committees were to submit to the deficit Super Committee an outline of suggested deficit-reduction measures.  Only the Senate and House Agriculture Committees submitted a bipartisan, bicameral plan.

Together we can feed the Bees

There is no reason why a Farm Bill can't be crafted this year as well.  The work done by the Agriculture Committees to date provides a good starting point.  Both Committees are in the midst of a series of hearings on the Farm Bill, various stakeholders have weighed in, and the Administration has submitted an outline budget for Farm Bill programs.

Moreover, the Congressional Budget Office has issued its March report, adjusting the estimate of the budget baseline for the Farm Bill and other programs.  This baseline is the projected cost of Farm Bill programs over the next five or ten years, assuming current programs are extended unchanged. Historically, and this year in particular, the March Baseline becomes the benchmark for the deficit savings that Congress has to work with in crafting this new Farm Bill. 

The farm bill provides the proper forum to develop the most effective, efficient and integrated conservation efforts given the available federal dollars. Since the 2008 Farm Bill, Congress has used the appropriations process to force changes in mandatory program spending, which has included cuts for conservation programs.  Year after year, ad hoc spending adjustments are not the way to make policy, however.  A forward looking, multi-year Farm Bill is. 

Inside the beltway, the talking points on the consequences of not passing a Farm Bill are familiar: nearly 46 million people would lose their nutrition assistance, 31 million school children would lose their school lunches, and there would be chaos as existing commodity programs would revert to permanent law under the original Agriculture Adjustment Act of 1938.  But, it is well worth considering the environmental and conservation impacts as well.  After all, the conservation title is perhaps the most interconnected title in the Farm Bill -- a cornerstone of agricultural policy in many ways.  Its primary objective is protecting soil, water and air, which are the productive assets of American agriculture.  The conservation title is a fundamental investment in reaching the goals of other Farm Bill titles, such as financial stability, nutrition, trade and energy feedstock production.

Even with a short-term extension of the Farm Bill, producers would face too much uncertainty to effectively plan for the future.  The key to both economic and environmental sustainability for America's food and fiber producers is for them to know they will be able to access a full suite of conservation, safety net, marketing and credit programs that work in concert.  That only comes from a full reauthorization of the Farm Bill.

Perhaps agriculture policymaking has always been different in Washington because of the people involved.  Farmers and ranchers have always been up to the challenge of getting up early and getting things done, even on a deadline.  Whether it is getting the hay in before the rain, moving the cattle before the snow, or planting and harvesting around the weather, in our business, there isn't the luxury of waiting until next year.  The same goes for the Farm Bill.

Jon Scholl became the President of American Farmland Trust in July 2008, after serving as Counselor to the Administrator for Agricultural Policy at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) since 2004. At the U.S. EPA, Scholl led the development of the first National Agricultural Strategy, the first agricultural advisory committee and the first agency-wide cross media agriculture team. He also helped direct agency regulations on animal feeding operations, renewable fuel standards, clean air rules, and emission reporting requirements. In 2007, Scholl provided counsel to the USDA Farm Bill team on conservation provisions.


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