Farm Bill Update: The Farm Bill Expires. Now What?
By Patty Lovera
October 1 is an important date around Washington, DC, because it’s the first day of the government’s fiscal year. So for the federal government, it is now 2013.
While that might seem irrelevant unless you’re an accountant, it does matter for how government agencies run their programs. And like so many things happening in D.C. this year, budgets have not been done in a normal process. One thing Congress did manage to do before leaving town was to deal (kind of) with the budget situation, by passing a “continuing resolution” that extends the 2012 budget for another six months instead of passing a new one. This means they will have to re-examine the budgets for the rest of 2013 after the election, in the new Congress. (And this will happen after the budget cuts required by last year’s deficit reduction deal, called “sequestration,” kicks in. Which is a topic for a different day.)
But one thing that did NOT get done was to pass a new Farm Bill. And the 2008 Farm Bill expired yesterday. We are now running without a Farm Bill, a situation that most ag policy veterans swore would never happen because it was just too disruptive to contemplate. But here we are.
In addition to the political finger-pointing about whose fault it is that Congress couldn’t get the job done (and there’s plenty of blame to go around on that front), we’re just starting to get more real information about what it actually means to have the Farm Bill expire.
For many of the biggest programs in the Farm Bill, there is actually some more time before things change dramatically. SNAP (or food stamps) will continue to be funded under the budget extension that passed last month. Commodity payment programs (for crops like corn and soybeans) will continue normally this fall (through the current growing season), but it is unclear what the programs would be for crops planted next year.
But other programs are hit more seriously right away. The major conservation programs will continue this fall, but with much reduced funding that will seriously restrict how many acres can be signed up for the program. Some other conservation programs designed for specific regions or specific types of land (like grasslands) do expire. And many programs for organic production, beginning farmers and other alternatives do not continue unless a new Farm Bill that includes them is passed.
Dairy farmers will lose one of their support programs (the Milk Income Loss Contract program). But the expiration of the Farm Bill means that a much older law from the 1940’s goes back into effect, which should equate to higher prices for dairy farmers because their price would not be based on complex formulas that are often manipulated by the biggest dairy processors. We’ll see if the processing companies (and USDA) think of some other creative way to avoid having to pay dairy farmers a fair price for their milk.
So what’s next?
Congress is supposed to come back for a “lame duck” session in November, after the election. During that session they could pass an extension of the 2008 Farm Bill or pass a whole new bill. But they have a few other critical – and controversial – issues to deal with before the end of the year, including tax cuts and the deficit reduction deadline, so it’s unclear where the Farm Bill falls on that to-do list. Stay tuned.