Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., Oct. 31, Nov. 1 or 2
After years, Congress’ House/Senate conference committee on the Farm Bill is finally scheduled to meet this week, led by U.S. Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), House Agriculture Committee chairman. But area producers are still waiting on government help held up by October’s government shutdown, maybe wondering why some people dismiss farm subsidies as unneeded charity and certainly why some of the same politicians behind the shutdown also oppose a bipartisan compromise on the Farm Bill.
The Tea Party group American Commitment, led by Fox News Opinion writer Phil Kerpen, has attacked fellow Republicans for supporting the Farm Bill now under consideration. The Tea Party Patriots group in Georgia criticized the Farm Bill’s “handouts” to favored interests and “market distortions.”
At stake is more than $173 million in average annual subsidies paid to producers in 11 downstate counties (Fulton, Henderson, Henry, Knox, Livingston, McDonough, Mercer, Peoria, Tazewell, Warren and Woodford), according to USDA data.
Last year, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) refused to allow a vote on bi-partisan Farm Bills the Senate passed, frustrating lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
“After repeatedly calling on them to do so, I’m pleased that House leadership has finally appointed conferees for a Farm Bill conference with the Senate, and that this process is moving forward,” said U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Moline), a House Agriculture Committee member.
“Washington political games got in the way and today our farmers and rural communities are not only feeling the impact of the irresponsible and needless government shutdown, but they are also operating without a Farm Bill,” she continued. “Republicans and Democrats need to put the country first and come together to move this process forward.”
However, many people don’t realize the Farm Bill’s importance – or live in rural areas, diminishing their political clout – so there’s less urgency in Congress.
Originating during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl era of the 1930s, the Farm Bill uses loans, price supports and payments to protect farmers against variations in economic conditions and prices, plus weather and other calamities so producers’ operations are stabilized and the food supply remains reliable. It was intended to be a temporary solution to a crisis, but it was made permanent in 1949.
The Farm Bill supports food production; protects resources for food production (soil, water, etc.); and provides basic nutritional needs for all Americans. About 75 percent of Farm Bill funding is for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – food stamps). The rest is for Commodity programs, which include Conservation programs (30 percent), Commodities (25 percent), Miscellaneous (forestry, research, trade, rural development, etc., 5 percent), and Crop Insurance (40 percent).
The Crop Insurance Program paid out a record $17.3 billion nationwide in claims due to weather damage last year, according to USDA’s Risk Management Agency compiled by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), dwarfing payouts from 2001-2010, when claims averaged $4.1 billion annually. Illinois led the nation in the damage – and cost: $3,011,443,799, the NRDC reports.
USDA figures for 2012 crop insurance aid to the 11 counties mentioned show these payouts: Fulton ($23.8 million), Henderson ($4.1 million), Henry ($36.2 million), Knox ($7.4 million), Livingston ($150.7 million), McDonough ($19.8 million), Mercer ($2.9 million), Peoria ($7.9 million), Tazewell ($17 million), Warren ($10 million) and Woodford $39.7 million).
As to the Farm Bill, likely changes in a compromise, according to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) are:
* a cap on total commodity payments and benefits so no farm is eligible to receive more than $250,000 per year in commodity subsidies, rather than the current unlimited amount;
* a cap on total payments at $100,000 annually per farm under a new shallow loss and target price program option, rather than the effectively unlimited amount now; and
* targeted payments to working farmers and closing loopholes that let the largest, most profitable farming operations collect higher payments than current law would seem to permit.
Meanwhile, the three biggest differences in the House and Senate versions may be:
* cuts in food stamps (the Senate version would trim $4 billion over 10 years; the House wants to cut $39 billion over a decade and add work requirements for Americans eligible for the help.
* dairy support (the Senate has a Dairy Security Act; the House dropped its market stabilization program); and
* the Farm Bill as the legal foundation for U.S. agriculture (the Senate retains the 1938 and 1949 laws as the basis; the House makes just the new commodity title permanent).
Here in the heartland, farmers – and their neighbors – still wait and wonder.
[PICTURED: Graphic from hoosieragtoday.com]