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Can Farm Bill Break the Pattern of Paralysis in Congress?
Mark Pattison
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Wednesday, June 20, 2012
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Cows graze on a farm just outside Postville, Iowa.
WASHINGTON (CNS)—Both houses of Congress have been working on a new farm bill, as the current farm bill expires Sept. 30. That would seem to leave a lot of time for the bill to get through Congress, even one as polarized as this one is.

But not so fast. The number of working days Congress has this year will be reduced sharply because of the time needed to campaign in a presidential election year. That works not only against the bill, but against the elected officials who—in a time before attack ads, anyway—liked to trumpet their legislative achievements.

And the look of the final farm bill is still up for grabs.

Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Pat Roberts, R-Kan., had worked out the basics of a new farm bill late last year as part of the "supercommittee" deficit reduction talks. But when the supercommittee failed to come up with a plan, the farm bill had to be shelved.

But Stabenow and Roberts came back with a bill that cuts federal outlays by more than $23 billion over the next 10 years, including $4 billion in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- formerly known as food stamps -- but even more cuts in direct payments to farmers. In their place would be a crop insurance program that would pay farmers when crops fail or when prices sag.

The House Agriculture Committee has developed its own farm bill, but the full House hasn't yet put it on its docket, perhaps waiting to see if the Senate can pass a version that would go to a House-Senate conference committee to hammer out the final details of the package.

Work on the measure has been slow, admitted Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, of which the National Catholic Rural Life Conference is a member. "I think it's precarious right now but still possible," Hoefner said.

"It's McConnell's call," he added, referring to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., "but he hasn't been too forthcoming about how he wants to call it." Hoefner blames the current Senate slowdown on GOP-offered amendments "on everything from Pakistan to state taxes. ... You name it, they've got an amendment for it."

One such amendment would conceivably open National Park Service lands and other federal properties to hunting, trapping and recreational shooting, currently forbidden under the Antiquities Act of 1906. The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees issued an email plea June 14, telling the Senate, "Don't use the farm bill to assault the national park system."

Ron Rosmann, who farms 700 acres of cropland and raises 100 cows and 70 hogs in Iowa, just joined the board of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference this year. He bemoaned the proposed cuts to SNAP as "really sad. It's really sad that we live in a country as wealthy as we are compared to the rest of the world, and we can't even feed our own people," a situation he blamed on "misplaced priorities" in agriculture.

"What burns my butt is we're producing ethanol and stuff, and we're not really producing food anymore. The bulk of it is raw commodities. We're supposed to have food security, and in reality we have less food security than we used to," Rosmann said. "Agribusiness and the industrial food system, you know, has so much lobbying power, and they give money to people that need to get reelected, so they're going to vote that way by and large.

Dave Minar, a third-generation farmer who runs a 140-cow organic dairy in New Prague, Minn., about 45 minutes south of Minneapolis, echoed Rosmann's comments. "I realize what we're up against -- Monsanto and the big companies. They have a lot of clout in D.C.," he said.

Minar also spoke to issues he sees in farming today. We're seeing a lot of erosion. The heavier rains come down now, a lot heavier than they used to," he said. "Guys are tilling their soybean fields in the fall. I don't know why they do that with the chemicals they use now. There needs to be a program where they don't have to till. A lot of conservation programs -- that the main program, the CRP, the Conservation Reserve Program, that's been very much gutted."

The Obama administration, in a June 7 statement on administration policy, said it would like to "enhance conservation" and "streamline conservation assistance" in the farm bill.

"Less than 10 percent of farm bill funding supports water and soil conservation practices, such as no-till farming and preserving wetlands and grasslands," wrote Bob Gronski, a policy adviser for the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, in an essay to be published in Sojourners magazine.

Gronski said if the House version, which currently has $33 billion in cuts, makes it to the floor for debate, "some members will insist on deep cuts and others will hold firm on government assistance to nutrition, the farmer safety net, or conservation." Some agriculture observers predict that farmers, buttressed by crop insurance against low prices or low yields, will ignore conservation practices and try to grow on unsuitable land, thus invoking the insurance repayment provision of the proposed farm bill.

The rural life conference is coordinating its farm bill advocacy efforts with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic Charities USA and Catholic Relief Services.

It assembled a detailed policy analysis on its priorities for the farm bill that "will uphold the life and dignity of the human person and promote stewardship of creation," touching upon sustainable agriculture; rural development and crop insurance; the issues surrounding beginning farmers; conservation; commodity programs; food and nutrition assistance; the interplay of local farms with food and jobs; market concentration; renewable energy from farms; and research, education and rural health, "The 2012 farm bill must support the best of rural America -- family farming and ranching, vibrant communities, and entrepreneurship," said James Ennis, executive director of the rural life conference, in a May 25 essay.

"Now is a crucial time for Congress to hear from citizens on what needs to be in the farm bill," Ennis added. "You can bet that farm commodity groups and big agribusiness interests will get their voices heard. Equally important will be the voice of family farm and healthy food advocates, as well as clean water and environmental supporters."

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