WASHINGTON – A massive farm bill that authorizes federal agricultural and food aid programs expired at the end of last month, plunging Minnesota farmers into uncertainty at harvest time.
The impact of the expiration of the five-year farm bill might not be felt right away. But there’s frustration at Congress’ inability to produce a new farm bill, and farmers are concerned that the best they can expect is that lawmakers approve legislation for a stop-gap measure, a temporary extension of current federal farm policies.
“Hope for a freshened-up farm bill is starting to wane,” said Dan Glessing, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation and a farmer in Wright County. “If we can do our work, why can’t Congress do its work?”
The expiration of the current farm bill at the end of last month was overshadowed by the threat of a federal government shutdown. That was followed by the crisis provoked by the U.S. House GOP when it ousted former Speaker Kevin McCarthy. The U.S. House cannot consider a new farm bill, or any legislation, until a new speaker is chosen.
But the farm bill, usually written and supported in a bipartisan fashion, had run into trouble even before all business in Congress was frozen. That’s because some Republicans wanted to shift money from conservation programs and from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — also known as food stamps — to increase commodity programs and expand crop insurance, a program available to farmers and ranchers to help protect them against declines in crop yields and/or revenue. Democrats, meanwhile, were strongly opposed to the proposed transfer of funds.
Glessing said he supports the expansion of crop insurance to more specialty crops, like cherries and onions that are hurt by lower-priced imports. He also supports beefing up commodity programs. Row crop farmers — those growing wheat, corn and soybeans for instance — have been hard hit by rising interest rates, high inflation and turbulence in their markets.
But Glessing said the farm bureau opposes any attempt to cut conservation programs or food stamp benefits or beneficiaries. The nutrition title in the farm bill accounts for nearly 80% of the legislation’s cost, making it an attractive target.
“We look at the farm bill as a food bill, and we are for the food getting to people who need it,” he said.
Another roadblock faced by the new farm bill is that some GOP lawmakers objected to its $1.5 trillion price tag.
Earlier in the year, many lawmakers, including House Agriculture Chairman Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pennsylvania, and Rep. Tom Emmer, R-6th District, were confident a farm bill would be approved by Congress before the Sept. 30 expiration of the old one. After that failed to happen, there’s little confidence a new farm bill can be approved by Congress at all.
With the expiration of the 2018 farm bill, programs that are funded by appropriations, including SNAP and crop insurance, can continue, but there can be no changes to those programs.
Other programs, including the massive dairy program, are authorized until the end of the year. After that, many of the nation’s farm programs would revert back to extremely outdated programs approved by Congress in the late 1930s and 1940s.
That means dairy farmers will be faced with what is called a “dairy cliff,” that would provide them with less support and result in a sharp increase in the price of dairy products. For instance, the wholesale price of milk, which is now a little more than $17 a hundredweight, would soar to $50.70 a hundredweight, according to a recent report by the Congressional Budget Office.
“What’s frustrating is that consumers are already complaining about high dairy prices,” said Glessing, who raises dairy cows and steers and grows soybeans and corn on his 700-acre farm in Wright County.
Glessing said Minnesota farmers he speaks to “just kind of roll their eyes” when the subject turns to Congress and the farm bill.
There is another crisis on the horizon that will prevent Congress from updating current federal farm policy: a short-term spending bill that averted a federal government shutdown expires on Nov. 17. And lawmakers are no closer to agreeing on how to spend the money earmarked for a new farm bill, so the best American farmers can hope for is a temporary extension of the current farm bill.
The problem with a one-year extension is it would place the consideration of the next farm bill in the middle of a presidential election year, and U.S. farmers are concerned it would be even harder to find agreement in that hyper-political season. So, there’s talk of a two-year extension, to take consideration of the farm bill into a new Congress, and perhaps a new presidential administration.
Lucas Sjostrom, executive director of the Minnesota Milk Producers Association, said he’s fine with a long-term extension of the current farm bill.
“Certainly, we would prefer to have a new one done, but extensions mean no new rules and it means certainty,” Sjostrom said.
He hopes Congress can pass an extension before the end of the year’s “dairy cliff.”
“That would totally upend and change our system,” Sjostrom said. “If we get to Dec. 15 (without legislation) that’s when we will be disturbed.”