Ag secretary, farmers question why house isn't debating farm bill

News
Jul 27, 2012

Noting he is a creature of politics, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack once again reiterated his push for House leaders to set aside partisan fights and bring up the farm bill.

“There is clearly a bipartisan understanding of a need for a farm bill and the basic parameters of that farm bill,” Vilsack said last Tuesday.

The agriculture secretary spoke to participants at the Iowa Farm Bureau’s economic summit in Ames after also attending a drought meeting earlier in the day. Vilsack continued his push for farmers to let House Speaker John Boehner, R- OH, know that going to the August recess without passing a farm bill isn’t acceptable. While there may be disputes on issues such as cuts to nutrition programs, the basic framework of the legislation is agreed upon. Now, there are the pressures on producers because of the weather.

“This can get done. It just requires the leadership on both sides to say we’re going to put all the monkey business aside because people are suffering. This is not a philosophical situation here. It’s the responsibility of leaders to put the politics aside and fix the problem.”

Vilsack said he has been hearing discussions that Congress could pass a special disaster bill. Once again, he said it defies argument that lawmakers would debate a stand-alone disaster bill rather than passing a full farm bill.

“There is nothing more important in rural America than passing this farm bill,” he said.

Conservative groups are pushing back against the farm bill. A coalition of fiscally conservative groups seeking to counter Vilsack and the farm lobby sent their own letter to Boehner on Tuesday urging him not to hold a debate on the farm bill.

“Agriculture already has a more than adequate safety net in the gold-plated federal crop insurance program in which taxpayers pick up, on average, 62 percent of the premium costs for crop insurance,” the groups wrote. “These policies allow businesses to guarantee up to 85 percent of their expected revenue.”

Other groups are running ads targeting Republicans, telling them not to vote for the farm bill.

Craig Hill, president of the Iowa Farm Bureau, said lawmakers should just get the legislation done. He cited how the bill has become much more skewed toward nutrition programs and the cuts that farmers will take from the loss of direct payments and other commodity changes. But the bill protects the cropinsurance program that has become the center of the safety net.

“It is a reform bill. We as an industry have given more to deficit reduction than really any other,” Hill said. “All we ask is that we preserve this component, the crop-insurance title. It should be sacred. Keep it safe and get it passed so we know what we’ve got ... That’s the message: Get it done.”

Because of crop insurance, Hill acknowledged that crop farmers are better insulated from this drought than in the past.

“There is more comfort in this drought than I have ever witnessed in any other drought because 90 percent do have a revenue policy and they typically have a fall-harvest price coverage feature on it so their revenue—they gotta pay the bank note on this operating loan, they have to pay for their inputs—they have some solace they are going to get their inputs paid,” Hill said. “They may not have as profitable a year as they hoped.”

Livestock producers are going to see their balance sheets hit hard, depending on how well they have managed their feed buying, Hill said. The farm bills passed by the Senate and House Agriculture Committee have special disaster provisions specifically for livestock producers who are affected most by the drought.

Vilsack also cautioned that if House members wait until the lame-duck timeframe to pass a bill, then the farm bill debate runs the risk of clashing with deficit reduction and tax bills. The $23 billion to $35 billion in savings in the Senate and House bills could translate into deeper cuts.

Speaking to reporters, Vilsack added that House leaders are scheduling debates on legislation now that have no chance of passing in the Senate rather than bringing up a bill of which the Senate has already passed its own version.

One farmer asked Vilsack why Boehner and others are resisting bringing up the legislation. “The speaker, I think, is being educated,” Vilsack said, noting Boehner’s initial response to calls last week about the farm bill was that farmers have crop insurance. “That’s true and that’s certainly going to make a big difference. But that doesn’t help the livestock producers. I think he’s been well educated in the past couple of days about the pressure that’s out there and the stress that’s out there.”

Vilsack said the key is for farmers to continue putting pressure on their own lawmakers to bring the farm bill to the floor before the five-week August break. “You are taking a five-week recess, really?” Vilsack said sarcastically. “To do what? To come back home? If you come back home, here is what you are going to hear.”

Farmers wanted to know whether Farm Service Agency offices would be notifying people in their counties about the changes in haying and grazing released by USDA lsat Monday. USDA will allow Conservation Reserve Program lands that are not yet classified as in “severe drought” but are “abnormally dry” to be used for haying and grazing to increase forage for livestock. Haying and grazing will be allowed following the local primary nesting season that has already passed in most areas.

Some producers were lucky enough to have enough rain in the right location so their crops aren’t as bad. Right now, there were estimates at the conference of a 135-bushel-peracre corn crop, meaning it would come in 11 bushels lower than USDA’s most recent forecast. “If that were to occur it would still be one of the top 10 corn crops in the country,” Vilsack said.

The secretary said it was too early to speculate over whether the country will need to import corn after this fall, despite a push by a few major packers, notably Smithfield, to import corn. “I’m confident in the resilience of agriculture and the ability to meet the demands,” Vilsack said. — Chris Clayton, DTN

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