On the farm, D.C. fatigue

After four years of watching lawmakers wrangle over a farm bill, farmers aren’t surprised.

“Most producers I talk to are not surprised by the delay – they’re disappointed by the delay,” said David Erickson, who has grown corn and soybeans in western Illinois since 1985.

The farm bill was due for reauthorization in 2012 – meaning negotiations over the legislation, which usually cover a five-year period, began in 2011. But a last-minute extension in the waning hours of 2012 pushed negotiations back to 2013 – and now, it’s 2014, the farm bill is expired, and prognosticators have been saying the legislation would be completed just next week for what seems like almost four years.

Erickson, who also serves as vice president of the Illinois Farm Bureau, feels that “it’s almost become expected that these things don’t pass on time. Extensions in recent history seem to be more normal than the exception.” But he’s still tired.

In March, he’ll have to purchase his crop insurance for the growing year. For a complex bureaucracy, he said, “it’s going to get to the point where it just gets uncomfortable to just get the paperwork part through the system…[It] takes a lot of preparation to get to that (crop insurance) decision.”

Washington “has procrastinated long enough,” he said – it’s time to get the farm bill done.

Still, interviews with producers around the country show that the expired farm legislation hasn’t brought U.S. agriculture to a halt.

“I think for the most part, farmers have a pretty good handle on what they think is going to be in the farm bill,” Erickson said, meaning they’re able to make at least some of their planting and budgeting decisions for the coming year.

Al Lyman, who owns a feedlot and farms 700 acres in Illinois, said the farm bill isn’t always at the forefront of his mind. “I can’t say there’s been a lot of decisions we haven’t made at this point” because of the lack of farm bill, he said.

And after two years of calls to action, calls to congressmen and commodity group meet-and-greets with senators, it seems that the urgency on the ground has petered out, at least a bit. Farm bill? Farmers are sick of hearing about it.

“I’m tired of the gridlock and the inability to get over one or two issues,” said Carrie Pollard, who works with a vet clinic in northern Illinois, advising operations that are raising a total 20,000 sows, while helping her husband run their 100-cow dairy.

“There’s a lack of political courage in Congress,” said Craig Yunker, who grows corn, wheat, soybeans, alfalfa, peas, cabbage, onions and turf in western New York. “There’s always one eye to the next election.”

It seems even agribusiness’ enthusiasm for the farm legislation has waned. According to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, in 2013 spending by agribusiness lobbyists decreased by $27.9 million from the previous year, when farm bill negotiations began full-tilt. Though farm bill issues didn’t account for all the spending, steady increases in outlays between 2010, 2011 and 2012 suggest the important agriculture legislation was driving lobbying activity.

Even the dairy industry, which now seems to be the subject of last-minute machinations by farm bill conferees, spent less on lobbying in 2013 – $6.1 million, down 15 percent from about $7.2 million in 2012.

On top of the farm bill fatigue, extended funding authority for important farm bill programs may help explain the lack of urgency in the fields. The Environmental Quality Insurance Program (EQIP), for example, the initiative that provides incentives to farmers who wish to improve the conservation practices on their land, is funded through Sept. 2014. Unlike other conservation programs – like the Wetlands Reserve Program – USDA is continuing to accept new EQIP contracts, as well as honoring existing ones.

Feedlot owner Lyman, for example, said he expects to receive all of the payments for an EQIP-funded project that allowed his business to replace a 60-year-old facility with a new structure that contains runoff and manure.

Also funded through appropriations: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which means poor Americans continue to receive food stamps even though the legislation technically authorizing the $80 billion program has lapsed.

So for most producers (and most Americans), farm bill uncertainty isn’t so bad in the day-to-day – meaning there’s less day-to-day nagging of lawmakers and officials. Instead, the lack of legislation is more of a niggling doubt, something that bothers producers in the quieter twilight hours, when they sit down to do paperwork and plan for the next few months.

Still, questions over the farm bill’s dairy program have made it difficult for Bob Foster, a fifth generation dairy farmer in Middlebury, Vermont, to map out a needed update to his facilities. “Our buildings were built in the late 60’s, early 70’s, and they’re getting tired,” he said. Foster, who owns a small, 450-cow dairy, said “There are some technology things we’d like to do,” but can’t without the information to plan.

At this point, most farmers say they just want it over with already. Swine management expert Pollard, who’s eagerly awaiting conferees’ decisions on country-of-original labeling and a provision from Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, that could make illegal certain states’ regulations on livestock housing, said she might even be willing to concede on her priority issues to get a farm bill done.

“We need to get through something,” she said. “Let’s all get along, let’s all come up with something that works. Some of these specific (commodity) questions can be addressed in individual bills, if need be.”

Pat Bane, who manages a contract breed-to-wean pig farm in Illinois and is involved with the state Farm Bureau, said the group has urged him to speak out on issues that barely affect his operation.

“We’re grassroots and [if the Farm Bureau] asks me to support something that would benefit the grain side more than the livestock side, we try to stick together and try to be a team,” he said – especially if that’s what’s needed to get the whole thing down.

But producers are mostly tired of what’s been happening in Washington since 2011 – and remember that farm policy usually isn’t the reason they got into farming.

“Sometimes, you’d rather stay home and do the work,” Lyman said.


For more news, go to www.agri-pulse.com.