Nearly 80 national agriculture/agribusiness/food processing/retailer organizations this week – led by the American Farm Bureau (AFBF) and the National Farmers Union (NFU) — “rallied” on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol, providing the Greek chorus to about a dozen members of Congress from both sides of the Hill and both sides of the aisle, all calling for Congress to pass a five-year Farm Bill before the 2008 bill expires on September 30.
Every story I read about the rally – I’ve been on the road – references the unanimity of opinion the Farm Bill is needed now to allow farmers to plan for 2013, but immediately segues into “there’s no time to do it,” “leadership won’t let it happen,” etc. At this point, just about every ag leader in Congress has pounded a nail in the 2012 Farm Bill coffin.
The quotes from the House leadership are kind of funny, and this political alibi-ing speaks volumes. It says to me House and Senate leadership don’t get it; it says to me House leadership believes not reauthorizing the Farm Bill — at least until the new Congress — means no pain down on the farm. I can hear the political experts — of both parties, with an eye on that November 6 election date – saying to each other with great assuredness: “No big deal, we can do the Farm Bill next year. Things aren’t as bad as feared. We do disaster aid for livestock and all is good. There’s record on-farm income, so no one loses.”
Excuse me, but that’s a seriously shortsighted rationale. First, a huge chunk of that “record” net farm income is more than likely coming from some mighty big crop insurance payouts thanks to the worst drought in about 70 years. Livestock and poultry producers are liquidating herds and flocks at near-record rates. Given this year’s corn crop — despite the happy press releases from USDA ballyhooing “the eighth largest corn crop ever” — and the existing stock-to-use ratio, you can pretty much say adios to record exports for a while, so that on-farm income number is pretty much guaranteed to at least start to sag.
This entire scenario belies the apparent misunderstanding by most politicians and the public about the importance of strong federal farm programs. Folks continue to take for granted that agriculture is an “industry” fundamental to citizen quality of life, i.e. these are the folks who feed the rest of us at an affordable level. It’s dangerous to believe these folks will always be there no matter in the inability of Congress to do its job. Yes, there will always be farmers; what’s unknown is how many will survive and how well can independent farm consolidation serve both the industry and the consumer.
The pending Farm Bill – whether Senate or House Committee version – is not a case of paying farmers not to farm – yes, there are members of Congress who still believe that. The current situation is once again the federal government creating uncertainty in a marketplace. This is agriculture’s chance to wander in the wilderness of fiscal and regulatory/program uncertainty, what should be recognized as a symptom of a broader U.S. economic disease, namely the deep lack of certainty and trust in what the federal government will do, translating into a refusal to invest, hire or expand.
If House Speaker John Boehner truly believes giving floor time to the House Agriculture Committee’s approved Farm Bill is a waste of said floor time because the bill doesn’t have the necessary “support” — Democrats are upset the bill whacks the federal food stamp program in a major way and far more than its Senate cousin — then Boehner should do his job and move the bill to the floor, limit floor time, allow 20 or 30 truly germane amendments, and if the thing dies, it dies. If that’s the ultimate outcome, farmers, ranchers and the businesses which rely upon them are no worse off than the Farm Bill being some kind of bizarre political football, as in the second most-often heard political rationale: “We’ll just extend it for a year.”
I’ve said it before; I’ve seen “dead” Farm Bills rise from the grave, and this one is no exception. While obviously there’s the reality that little will/can be done by September 30, I’m still betting that sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Congress will deliver a five-year Farm Bill – and then we’ll likely start fixing whatever gets enacted during the next Congress.