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Published August 19, 2013, 10:24 AM

Fix problems in farm bill

During his visit to Minnesota’s annual Farmfest, Forum News Service reporter Don Davis found more apathy than anxiety. Farmers just didn’t seem too concerned about the lack of a farm bill.

By: Mike Jacobs, Agweek

During his visit to Minnesota’s annual Farmfest, Forum News Service reporter Don Davis found more apathy than anxiety. Farmers just didn’t seem too concerned about the lack of a farm bill.

That’s not too surprising.

On the whole, things are pretty good down on the farm. Prices are still strong, although they’re down a little. Spring was wet, but the summer has been good for crop development. Yields look strong.

Of course, things don’t look quite so good in Washington, where farm legislation has been stalled again. The House Republican leadership said recently that it wouldn’t appoint members of a conference committee until after the summer recess. That means no negotiations before September at the earliest, and no opportunity to reach an agreement between House and Senate versions of a farm bill.

So we wait.

In the meantime, it’s appropriate to point out that recent farm legislation isn’t without problems. In fact, much of the legislation deals with food stamps and other nutrition programs. The size of those programs is a key disagreement in Washington.

Changes

That doesn’t mean there aren’t problems with the farm part of the farm bill. Farm policy has taken a fairly sharp turn away from protecting the food supply and the land resource and toward protecting producers.

The crop insurance program is a case in point. Congress decided to shift from direct payments to producers toward more reliance on risk management.

That change was greeted enthusiastically in farm country.

But the law of unintended consequences has kicked in.

The farm insurance program has promoted rapid inflation in farmland values and it has encouraged the drainage of wetlands. Both of these are evident in North Dakota.

Farmland prices are up 36 percent year over year, and that’s on top of several years of double digit increases.

High land prices encourage consolidation in agriculture, because only successful farmers — those who already have equity in land — are able to borrow money to buy land. This freezes out smaller farmers and, especially, beginning farmers, who often are forced to rent at higher and higher rates.

Reduced risk has prompted farmers to till more land, too, because the law insures farmers who can’t plant. This prevented planting provision means that areas that are often untillable have been plowed up because they could be eligible for insurance payments.

For several years, North Dakota and Minnesota have had high rates of wetland losses, among the highest in the nation. Of course, last year’s long dry fall enabled tilling many acres that had previously been in grass.

Land stewardship has always been an important element of farm legislation, and farmers have accepted their responsibility for preserving natural areas.

Past farm legislation has had conservation compliance provisions. The House version of new legislation removed them. Rep. Kevin Cramer voted for that bill.

Sens. Heidi Heitkamp and John Hoeven have criticized them, too, arguing that they are confusing and inconsistent. Hoeven’s view is especially important, because he’ll be one of the senators negotiating on the bill in conference committee.

There are ways to fix the regulations short of eliminating farmers’ responsibility for conservation. Americans have a right to expect that farm practices won’t hurt water and wildlife resources any more than other industries do.

The crop insurance rates are heavily subsidized, and farmers continue to benefit from our tax dollars.

The future of farm legislation is uncertain, at best, and any outcome will be imperfect.

It’s probably going to take an election to break the deadlock between the House and the Senate.

So the best outcome is an extension of the most recent farm bill, imperfect as it is, and a commitment to fix the problems.

Editor’s note: Jacobs is pubisher of the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald.

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