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Uncertain future for farm bill

Saturday, December 8, 2012
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One thing farmers don’t need is more uncertainty in their lives. They face enough already.

Take the weather. Right here in the Capital Region, our farmers have recently faced flood and drought. Hail, high winds and untimely frosts are perpetual threats. The only certainty is that future weather will continue to be weird.

The economics aren’t much better. The nature of the business is that you don’t really know what you’ll get paid for your milk, corn or colt until the day you sell — and maybe not until weeks afterward. The market forces at work in agriculture are global and not easily fathomed.

So it would be nice if government policy were a Rock of Gibraltar, but it’s more like an iceberg in Bermuda.

The 2008 federal farm bill expired in September. Amidst much political haggling, there’s little prospect of a new bill before Jan. 1. If nothing happens, a 63-year-old price support law kicks in, and it’s possible consumer milk prices will double overnight.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty about where we go forward in the next year without this Farm Bill in place,” said Dean Norton, president of the New York Farm Bureau.

The 25,000-member Farm Bureau just wrapped up its three-day annual meeting at The Desmond in Colonie, with the absence of a federal farm bill one of the big issues.

“The uncertainty is that if you go into next year without a farm bill in place you would go back to the 1949 law,” said Norton, an agricultural accountant from Batavia whose family owns a dairy farm.

That post-World War II law would set a minimum milk price nearly twice what farmers in New York state now receive — and retail milk could rise to $6 a gallon. The price hike would ripple through what we pay for cheddar cheese and chocolate chip ice cream. I can’t picture street riots, but it wouldn’t be pretty.

“The concern is that the market would drop right off,” said Steve Ammerman, Farm Bureau’s manager of public affairs.

Indeed it might, no matter how many more people can be converted to Greek yogurt.

Without a new bill, vital government-backed crop insurance — including disaster emergency loans — would also go away.

“To address things like [tropical storms] Irene and Lee, we really need these tools,” said Julia Suarez, the organization’s policy director. “We need risk-management tools, especially if the weather continues to do crazy things.”

The current milk price support program expired when the bill did in September, and it’s only good fortune that it didn’t happen at a time of disastrously low milk prices, like the 2009 price crisis that pushed hundreds of dairy farms out of business.

Even horse breeders could be affected if the bill isn’t renewed.

“You have to look at what might be the collateral effects. Grain prices might go up,” said David Cummings, a thoroughbred breeder from Schuylerville who was a Saratoga County Farm Bureau delegate at the meeting.

“We all get lumped in together, but there’s very little comparison between Midwestern mega-farms and what we have in New York state, where so many are small family farms,” Cummings said.

So can a deeply dysfunctional Congress — one that has a commitment problem whenever money is involved — get a coherent farm policy together before the office New Year’s party?

The best hope at the moment is that a compromise bill — or at least an extension of the expired farm bill — will be included in the “fiscal cliff” negotiations now under way in Washington.

The Senate has adopted a bill, and the House Agriculture Committee has adopted a different bill, but the House bill has never gotten past the leadership for a floor vote.

The proposals would knock either $23 billion or $35 billion off of current agricultural spending, in large part by cutting food stamp benefits. One can argue that a new farm bill would help reduce future deficits. But time is short.

An extension of the current bill, Norton said, isn’t ideal but “at least eliminates the uncertainty.”

We also learned on Thursday that newly elected U.S. Rep. Chris Collins, a Republican from western New York, will get a seat on the House Agriculture Committee, giving New York an unprecedented third member on the panel.

Local U.S. Reps. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook, and Bill Owens, D-Plattsburgh, both of whom know where butter comes from, are already on the Agriculture Committee.

“We’re really very pleased with the delegation we have,” Suarez said.

 
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