What if Congress doesn't pass a farm bill?

Aug 15, 2012

Roy Pralle is an 85-year-old retired farmer from Latimer, Iowa. He spends most afternoons playing cribbage with other retired farmers at Dudley's Corner, a diner attached to a gas station in north-central Iowa.

"Now they’re farming 5, 10,000 acres, well – it’s not fun anymore, it’s a big business," said Pralle, who started farming when he graduated from high school in 1945. "If you’ve got that much money to farm you might as well retire, that’s the way I look at it anyway."

Yes, farming has changed a great deal in Pralle’s lifetime. But if Congress doesn’t pass a new farm bill, the government policies in place when Pralle was a teenager could once again be the law of the land.

Congress is on summer recess, just 13 work days remain before the November elections, and passage of the omnibus farm bill looks bleak.

If there is no farm bill, 90 percent of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s programs would be gone, said Chad Hart, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa.

"We go back to parity pricing on our crops and livestock, which would mean there will be a tremendous amount of government support flowing out because parity prices are based upon what they were back in the 1920s,” he said. “Think of those prices being inflated up to today’s values."

Could that really happen?

Amanda Taylor, senior policy advisor for the Iowa Corn Growers Association, said Congress won’t allow it.

"Congress might be slow to work, not get done in September. I can’t imagine USDA pulling out every program in place – reverting – knowing congress will come around eventually and work out a deal," said.

Taylor says Congress rarely acts on anything going into an election, but they’ll be forced to agree on a short-term extension of the previous farm bill.

That’s frustrating to a lot of Midwestern farmers and ranchers because passing a new farm bill was so close.

What got in the way was the part of the farm bill about nutrition. Specifically the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, Republicans in the full House couldn’t agree on how much to cut.

The driest summer in decades has added to the urgency, because while many crop farmers have insurance programs as a bulwark against catastrophe, most of the aid programs designed to protect cattle and pork producers expired earlier this year ahead of the 2012 farm bill.

So the House suggests a drought relief band aide for agriculture producers in its place. But the Senate swatted it away – saying essentially “no, give us a five-year farm bill”.

Now ranchers, like Ed Greiman out by Garner in northern Iowa, are feeling what life would be like without a farm bill.

"This year was going to be a banner year, it was really projected to be really good," Greiman said. "That's changed all of a sudden in the last 60 days."

Greiman said he wishes the farm bill would just focus on the farm.

"Unfortunately there are a lot of dollars tied to the farm bill that have nothing to do with agriculture — food stamps and things like that," Greiman said. "I think that that’s where the hang up is coming with the budget. Which is unfortunate, I’d just kinda like to get rid of all that stuff and have the farm bill be the farm bill."

After all, nearly 80 percent of the farm bill focuses on the nutrition side, but the corn association’s Taylor said having those other programs wrapped into the bill actually helps.

"If we were working on simply a farm bill that affected only farmers," Taylor said. "I find it very difficult to think that urban legislators from either side of the aisle would be one very excited about it, two work very hard on it, and three even vote for it."

Taylor expects Congress to to approve a farm bill extension by the end of the session at the end of September. As for a new 2012 farm bill… uncertainty continues, because after the November election the politics will change once again.