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Published August 13, 2012, 10:21 AM

Drought adds urgency to farm bill passage

As we consider the shape of the 2012 farm bill and the likelihood of getting it through the House of Representatives, we are reminded of one of the sayings of Yogi Berra: “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”

By: Daryll E. Ray and Harwood D. Schaffer, Agweek

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — As we consider the shape of the 2012 farm bill and the likelihood of getting it through the House of Representatives, we are reminded of one of the sayings of Yogi Berra: “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”

With worsening drought in more than half of all of the counties in the U.S., pressure from those calling for elimination or modification of the Renewable Fuels Standard, cattle producers without drought protection and a number of programs that either saw their authorization end Sept. 30, 2011 or will see it end this Sept. 30, you have a recipe for indigestion for a lot of producers.

The quickest route to passing a farm bill would have been for House leadership to take House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., at his word that he could be ready for the committee’s bill to go to the House floor on short notice so the 2012 farm bill could be scheduled for consideration in the remaining work days before the August recess.

If the House then had passed a farm bill, the Conference Committee could have used August to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate versions and have a bill ready for vote ahead of the September expiration of the 2008 farm bill. With Congress now enjoying its August recess, this scenario never got off the starting blocks.

As of the July 16 crop progress report, only 18 percent of pasture and range acreage was reported to be in good or excellent condition while 54 percent was reported to be in poor or very poor condition. Last year, 46 percent of pasture and range acres were reported to be in good or excellent condition.

With deteriorating conditions, cattle producers would benefit from several programs that expired last year — including the Livestock Forage Disaster Program and the Livestock Indemnity Program. The timely passage of the 2012 farm bill would add some certainty for cattle producers as they go into the fall. The House passed disaster assistance that included those programs Aug. 2. But the Senate did not act on it before the recess, and that body has written the programs into the five-year farm bill it already passed.

To help cattle producers in the meantime, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced that it was opening up some Conservation Reserve Program acreage to haying and grazing. While that will help some, the drought that is responsible for poor pasture and range conditions also affects CRP acres.

In addition, the drought has renewed interest in the Supplemental Revenue Insurance Program, a program which was left out of the Senate version of the farm bill and the House disaster assistance legislation. SURE provides disaster protection for a wider range of farmers and situations than those covered by the crop insurance program.

The deterioration of this year’s corn crop has provided the rationale for opponents of ethanol and the RFS to call on Congress to relax the amount of ethanol that has to be blended into gasoline, at least for this year. On the other side, ethanol producers note that ethanol is currently in surplus, and even without a change in the RFS, fewer bushels of corn will be used for ethanol in the coming year. They also remind people that ethanol production only uses the starch in corn and the vast majority of the protein, mineral and oil feed value is still available for animals in the form of dried distiller’s grains.

We would be remiss if we did not remind our readers that if we had reserve stocks in place, the impact of the drought on the users of grains and oilseeds would be lessened — we would not be on the edge of a cliff caught between supplies that might be adequate to pull us through to next year and inadequate supplies that will send us over the edge and prices into the stratosphere. That said, farmers who end up watching their crops wither for the lack of moisture still will need protection for yield loss.

With the drought adding to the importance of getting a farm bill in place to provide farmers and ranchers with the planning security they need, House members may get an earful back home during the recess. It will be interesting to see if Congress is spurred to action when it reconvenes in September.

Editor’s Note: Ray holds the Blasingame Chair of Excellence in Agricultural Policy in the Institute of Agriculture at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and is the director of the university’s Agricultural Policy Analysis Center. Schaffer is a research assistant professor at APAC.