Recess prolongs farm bill delay

Aug 2, 2013

Congress is set to leave town for its summer recess Aug. 2 without passing a new farm bill. The current farm bill extension expires just weeks after lawmakers are scheduled to return to Washington and that’s leaving some farmers feeling stymied about planning.

Already wacky weather in the Midwest this season has underscored the precariousness of farming. Too much heat in some places and too much moisture in others has left some fields near barren.  The weather can make or break an operation and that’s where federal policy comes in. Since the Great Depression, it has provided a safety net.

When the future of those policies is unknown—as was the case at this time last year and is once again the case—farmers don’t have all the information they need to make decisions.

Riley Lewis grows crops and raises hogs in Winnebago County, Iowa.

“Even though it’s August, the rents are being renegotiated and the farmers are putting together their packages for next year,” he said. “[Without] a solid foundation on which to base some of your decisions, [it] really makes it kind of a chancy decision […] especially when it comes to crop insurance.”

Crop insurance has become the primary safety net for many Midwestern row crop farmers. Lewis said it is hard to commit to rental rates—much less land purchases or capital expenses—with such a big unknown.

The Senate passed a comprehensive farm bill early in the summer. The House has yet to take up nutrition policy—its farm bill includes only agricultural programs. That leaves the House and Senate billions of dollars apart and the farm bill in limbo.

And like lawmakers, not all farmers agree about what should ultimately be in a farm bill. Steve Hemingway of Iowa City said things have been good for the agriculture sector the past few years and some existing supports—such as direct payments—are no longer needed.

“Agriculture is a business. And it can be a family business or it can be a commercial business,” he said, “but whether or not it deserves subsidization more than other businesses, I think, is a debate that we don’t seem to have. “

Under the Senate-passed farm bill, direct payments would go away. Hemingway fears Congress will just re-extend the current farm bill, which would continue direct payments for another year.

Congress gets back to work in Washington Sept. 9. The current extension expires three weeks later. If President Barak Obama does not sign a new farm bill this fall, farmers may spend a third year wondering what to expect from the fed.

Iowa Public Radio’s Dean Borg contributed to this report.