The Fumbles of the Farm Bill

Aug 13, 2012

While Iowa’s congressional candidates are campaigning at the state fair, piles of unresolved legislation wait for them back in Washington. Including the farm bill – that large piece of legislation from food stamps to crop insurance. But with 13 days left in the session, passage is looking pretty bleak.  Could there really be no farm bill this year?

Roy Pralle is an 85-year-old retired farmer from Latimer, Iowa. He spends most afternoons playing cribbage with other retired farmers at Dudley's Corner. A diner attached to a gas station in north central Iowa. 

Pralle started farming when he graduated high school in 1945 near Lattimer. When he retired in 1993 he farmed about 240 acres. 

"Now they’re farming 5 10,000 acres, well – it’s not fun anymore – it’s a big business," Pralle said. "If you’ve got that much money to farm you might as well retire, that’s the way I look at it anyway."

If Congress doesn’t pass a new farm bill, the government policies in place when Pralle was a teenager could once again be the law of the land. Chad Hart is an ag economist at Iowa State University. He says that would mean 90 percent of the United States Department of Agriculture’s programs would be gone.

"We go back to parity pricing on our crops and livestock," said Iowa State Agriculture Economist Chad HArt. "Which would mean there will be a tremendous amount of government support flowing out because parity prices are based upon what they were back in the 1920s. think of those prices being inflated up to today’s values."

"Frankly, Congress isn’t going to allow that," said  Iowa Corn Growers Association Senior Policy Advisor Amanda Taylor. "Congress might be slow to work, not get done in September. I can’t imagine USDA pulling out every program in place – reverting – knowing congress will come around eventually and work out a deal."

Taylor says Congress rarely acts on anything going into an election, but they’ll be forced to agree on a short-term extension of the previous farm bill.

That’s frustrating to a lot of Midwestern farmers and ranchers because passing a new farm bill was so close.

What got in the way was the part of the farm bill about nutrition. Specifically the SNAP program, also known as food stamps, Republicans in the full House couldn’t agree on how much to cut. That means no farm bill. So then comes the driest summer in decades. The House suggests a drought relief band aide for ag producers in its place. But the Senate swatted it away – saying essentially “no, give us a 5-year farm bill”. Now ranchers, like Ed Greiman out by Garner in northern Iowa, are feeling what life would be like without a farm bill.

"This year was gonna be a banner year, it was really projected to be really good," Greiman said. "That's changed all of a sudden in the last sixty days."

Greiman said he wishes the farm bill would just focus on the farm.

"Unfortunately there are a lot of dollars tied to the farm bill that have nothing to do with agriculture—food stamps and things like that," Greiman said. "I think that that’s where the hang up is coming with the budget. Which is unfortunate, I’d just kinda like to get rid of all that stuff and have the farm bill be the farm bill."

After all, nearly 80 percent of the farm bill focuses on the nutrition side, but Amanda Taylor with the Iowa Corn Growers Association said having those other programs wrapped into the bill actually helps.

"If we were working on simply a farm bill that affected only farmers," Taylor said. "I find it very difficult to think that urban legislators from either side of the aisle would be one very excited about it, two work very hard on it and three even vote for it."

Taylor expects a  congress to approve a farm bill extension by the end of the session. As for a new 2012 farm bill… uncertainty continues, because after the November election who knows?