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Saturday, August 18, 2012

Farm bill languishes while fields bake in drought. Congress' inaction raises aid questions for farmers

by Gregory A. Hall, The Courier-Journal, August 17, 2012 

Mississippi Delta region fights drought: In just one year the Mississippi River has experienced record flooding and near record low water levels due to drought. Today, farmers, cargo owners and the Corps of Engineers are all working to maintain the economic waterway.

As farmers across the nation watch their crops bake and struggle to keep their livestock fed in the worst drought in 50 years, the long-term future of government programs designed to help them remains tied up in Washington gridlock. 

In Kentucky and Indiana, tens of millions of dollars are at stake. 

The current farm bill — a roughly $910 billion measure that includes programs like direct payments to help farmers avoid financial peril in such conditions — expires Sept. 30.

And while there is widespread agreement that direct payments likely will be cut as lawmakers deal with government deficits and debt, debate continues on other assistance programs, such as marketing loans and payments that protect against future drops in crop prices.

The debate has extended from Capitol Hill and the presidential campaign to smaller venues, like the Kentucky State Fair.

“It’s a bad situation for farmers,” Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer said at the fair when it opened on Thursday. While he supports elimination of direct subsidies, Comer argues farmers need to know what the terms of insurance programs will look like.

“Hopefully we can get a farm bill passed that does provide that safety net for farmers.”

As to whom he blames for the current inaction, Comer said, “I blame all of Congress for that.”

Roger Thomas, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Agricultural Policy, said the problem is that farmers need to plan. “Farmers are just like any other business or industry. They have to know somewhat what the future’s going to hold for them in terms of programs, in terms of policies, regulations, procedures and all of those kind of things (that) are included in the farm bill,” he said. “So it’s disappointing that Congress can’t get a farm bill passed.”

The Senate passed a bill this summer that would eliminate $23 billion in spending, and a House committee approved its own version, which cut $35 billion. But the House version has yet to come to a floor vote, as Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, has said the votes aren’t there to pass it.

As farmers across the nation watch their crops bake and struggle to keep their livestock fed in the worst drought in 50 years, the long-term future of government programs designed to help them remains tied up in Washington gridlock.

Much of the debate has been focused on federal food assistance programs for the poor, which makes up more than three-quarters of the bill’s spending. The House Agriculture Committee bill cut $16 billion from the food assistance programs, while the Senate bill cut $4 billion, said Aleta Botts, the agricultural policy outreach director at the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture and a former U.S. House Agriculture Committee staffer.

U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, a Louisville Democrat, said he wants to see a farm bill passed, “but that cannot come at the expense of jobs and struggling families, particularly the 280,000 children who would lose school lunches — often the only meal they get — under the current House version of the bill.”

Both Kentucky senators, Republicans Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, opposed the farm bill that passed the Senate 64-35, with 16 Republicans in favor, although McConnell said afterward that its passage was one of the body’s finest recent achievements and a primer on how to pass a bill, since the Democratic majority allowed votes on many different amendments.

Political fodder

In Indiana, the issue has been the subject of charges in the gubernatorial race and the race to replace Sen. Richard Lugar, who lost in the Republican primary.

Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock has criticized lawmakers for not approving aid before the August recess. And Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Gregg has criticized his Republican opponent, U.S. Rep. Mike Pence, for not doing more. Both Pence and U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly, who is running against Mourdock, voted in favor of a temporary drought relief package that the House passed just before the current recess and that the Senate hasn't acted upon.

Little is expected to happen between now and the Nov. 6 presidential election. Last week President Barack Obama blamed the GOP’s vice presidential candidate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who is the House’s budget committee chief, for blocking a floor vote on the farm bill.

Kentucky congressmen Brett Guthrie, R-2nd District, and Ed Whitfield, R-1st District, both voted for the temporary drought relief bill, which a McConnell spokeswoman said he supports. Both Guthrie and Whitfield have districts with areas in the heart of the drought. And both released statements expressing hope that a farm bill can be passed.

Guthrie expressed hope for a September vote on a bill, while Whitfield’s statement said he’d like to see a five-year bill passed, “but we need to make sure that bill is complete and not rushed for political expediency."

“It’s very hard to assess the chances” of the possible options, Botts said. “I think there’s going to be momentum to pass something disaster-related in September because of the depth of the drought.”

A simple extension where just the expiration date on the current measure is changed would have trouble getting votes from budget hawks who want cuts, she said. Conversely, even small cuts may lose the votes of representatives in more agrarian areas.

Efforts to pass a one-year extension have failed.

“So you’ve got a problem with even passing an extension at this point,” she said.

Corn crisis

The one-two punch of dry weather and extreme heat was the worst on corn — which farmers across the country planted more of this year than anytime in the past 75 years because of high corn prices.

Even with the high number of plantings, U.S. farmers are expected to see a 13% drop in bushels produced compared with last year. The estimated 10.8 billion bushels would result in average yields of 123.4 bushels an acre, down 23.8 bushels from 2011.

In Kentucky, the USDA’s statistics service forecasts 96.9 million bushels to be produced — a 46% drop from last year. The forecast yield of 65 bushels an acre would be down 74 bushels from last year and the worst since the 1983 crop saw 48 bushels. More than three-fourths of the crop is rated poor or very poor.

Indiana’s numbers are only slightly better, with 71% of the crop rated poor or very poor. Indiana’s corn production is predicted at 605 million bushels, down 28% from last year. That would result in a yield of 100 bushels per acre, down 46 bushels.

Kentucky Farm Bureau President Mark Haney said in a telephone interview earlier in the week that he’s worried about a limited number of legislative days left in the year. “I don’t know of any legislation that’s more important to rural America than the farm bill.”

Haney said he hopes members of Congress will act soon after hearing from constituents during this recess and seeing conditions across the Midwest and other parts of the country.

Talk during the recess of building momentum may be true, Botts said, but “the problem is you’re running out of time.”

So, while signs of the drought are visible in virtually any cornfield in Western Kentucky or southwestern Indiana, signs of movement in Congress are hard to find.

“I don’t understand why they can’t get together on it,” said Hardin County grower Kenneth Hayden. “The uncertainty about what all that’s going to amount to is a little bit frustrating.”


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