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Published October 22, 2012, 10:47 AM

Farm programs at risk

The current farm bill has expired, and there is no mystery about why that happened.

By: Kent Conrad, Agweek

WASHINGTON — The current farm bill has expired, and there is no mystery about why that happened.

Though the full Senate and the House Agriculture Committee approved bipartisan versions of a new farm bill months ago, House Republican leaders would not allow either bill to be voted on by the full House.

House members who say they wanted to enact a new farm bill before the current one expired failed to secure a vote to do so. House leaders say they may get to it after the election, but have offered no firm commitment to do that.

This failure means several things to agricultural producers in North Dakota and across the United States.

Farm families now will have to plan their crop year with the added burden of not knowing what the nation’s farm policy will be. Those in the House who let the farm program expire often complain the most that uncertainty about tax and regulatory policy hobbles business and industry. Apparently, in their view, uncertainty about farm policy somehow is an exception.

It’s tough enough for family farmers and ranchers to make a profit through the maze of wildly uncertain weather, the constant threat of crop disease and farm markets often characterized by unfair trade practices and dramatic price swings. Republican leaders in the House shouldn’t ask them to do it without knowing what federal farm policy provides.

That uncertainty will ripple through farm and ranch country. Faced with uncertainty, bankers become reluctant to make farm operating loans. Implement and supply dealers will have difficulty deciding what to stock for the coming crop year.

Many of the conservation programs — such as Open Fields and new sign-ups for Conservation Reserve Program and Wetlands Reserve Program contracts — will be ended.

Failure to reauthorize the farm bill will undermine most of the energy programs the Senate Agriculture Committee extended in its version of the bill, creating uncertainty for investors in the development of North Dakota’s renewable energy industry.

Furthermore, the authority for our export promotion programs — which North Dakota producers have helped pay for to enhance overseas markets for our commodities — will expire.

Livestock producers will be especially affected. The Senate’s farm bill includes disaster assistance for livestock producers for 2012. With 80 percent of North Dakota experiencing some level of drought this year, North Dakota ranchers could use that help.

Without the provision in the Senate farm bill, they won’t get it.

And even more troubling is the red flag raised by the House’s insistence on putting off a vote on a new farm bill until after the election.

The House already has passed a blueprint for farm policy that would pull the rug out from under family farmers, ranchers and rural communities. That blueprint is the budget put forward by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., now the Republican vice presidential nominee.

It proposes massive cuts of $179 billion in 10 years in the federal farm program. The Senate farm bill more reasonably proposes $23 billion in cuts during the same period.

The Ryan budget axes conservation programs by 25 percent; cuts the farm safety net, which includes programs such as crop insurance and commodity price support, by nearly 20 percent; and chops more than 17 percent from nutrition, which boosts the domestic market for farm and ranch products by helping needy working families and the elderly buy groceries.

All but 10 of the 242 House Republicans voted for it.

No one suggests farm programs should be exempt from belt tightening. But I don’t know anyone who thinks arbitrarily cutting one of every $5 from important farm programs makes sense — except those who voted for the Ryan budget and the House leaders who won’t even consider scheduling a vote on a new farm bill until after the election.

The best firewall farmers and ranchers had against the Ryan budget’s farm bill funding levels was that voters would get to have a say — in the election — shortly after a House vote took place.

Now they won’t.

The way now is clear for House Republicans, who overwhelmingly passed the Ryan budget, to implement its assault on needed farm programs without having to face the voters shortly after doing so.

Conrad, a Democrat, represents North Dakota in the U.S. Senate.