Farmers frustrated by farm bill extension

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Alfred Brandt, who owns this dairy farm, says he's disappointed Congress couldn't pass a new farm bill. (Abbie Fentress Swanson/Harvest Public Media)
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Jeremy Bernfeld is Harvest Public Media’s editor, based at KCUR in Kansas City.

It takes months for most crops to grow and farmers are used to waiting. But many farmers and ranchers say they’ve waited too long for a comprehensive farm bill and are fed up with Congress.

Farmers and ranchers across the country expected to start the new year with a new farm bill, the all-important legislation setting agricultural policy for the next five years.

As House and Senate negotiators worked feverishly at the end of the year to come to a fiscal cliff deal, word leaked that the Agriculture Committees had finally come to an agreement on a long-awaited new farm bill. But the final fiscal cliff deal ditched new legislation and merely extended parts of the bill that expired in October, leaving farmers and ranchers across the country exasperated.

After numerous starts and stops in farm bill negotiations in 2012, the fact that Congress failed to pass a new bill at the end of the year didn’t shock Missouri dairy farmer Alfred Brandt.

Brandt said he was “not surprised, but disappointed that they couldn’t come together on something and just leaving a lot of people out there on a limb not knowing what’s going on.”

Brandt milks about 150 cows on his pastoral farm just off a gravel road near Lynn, Mo. The farm bill is important to farmers like Brandt because it sets all kinds of subsidy payments, disaster relief programs and conservation agendas.

Farmers can’t control much about their business, so they crave certainty about the aspects they can influence. Without knowing what agriculture policy will look like next year, it’s tough for them to make best-practice planting decisions and it’s hard for ranchers and dairy producers to decide just how big their herds should be.

The farm bill is usually authorized for five years. But since Congress couldn’t pass a new bill, it merely extended parts of the previous farm bill until the end of September, picking and choosing which programs to fund. That’s nine more months of short-term policy and nine more months of uncertainty for farmers like Brandt.

“We’re just left out here on a lurch,” Brandt said. “We don’t know which we way we can turn. We’d just like to know whether it’s good or bad for us, but the uncertainty is the part that we don’t like.”

Extending the farm bill also locks in another round of controversial direct payments. That means billions in government subsidies for some grain, cotton and soybean farmers – subsidies that even many of them don’t think are necessary anymore.

The extension doesn’t include funding for disaster aid programs and programs designed to encourage young people to get back in to farming. It also doesn’t fully fund programs that help support local farmers markets and agricultural research provisions.

Ferd Heofner, with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, says merely extending the current farm bill hurts small, local farmers.

“The takeaway is that we’re going backwards in time, getting rid of the programs that I think the general public and consumers are demanding – those are the programs that are getting terminated,” Heofner said.

The extension hit dairy producers especially hard. Many say the safety net for them is outdated and the new farm bill would have created a program to protect them against higher feed costs.

Jerry Kozak, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation, says last year’s drought significantly raised the cost of feed. That is chasing some dairy farmers out of business.

“Whether it’s dairy farming or producing energizer batteries, no one can produce a product at a loss,” Kozak said.

Kozak says dairy farmers looking for a new safety net are out of luck, at least until the extension expires at the end of September.

“Of course we’re frustrated,” Kozak said. “And in the interim, as dairy farm families exit the business while we’re still debating it, it clearly is going to fall on the heads of those who failed to bring this up for a vote.”

Even many farmers, long known for their patience, are growing weary of waiting on Congress.


Harvest Public Media’s Abbie Fentress Swanson contributed reporting to this story.