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Focus on Agriculture

September 10, 2012

Politics, the Farm Bill and Your Next Meal

By Ben LaCross

Parched and burnt cornfields, hayfields as yellow as the sun and chalky, dry soil are images we’ve seen from the record-setting drought of 2012. The farm bill is supposed to be the safety net for agriculture, especially in catastrophic disaster years such as this. But alas, chances of passing a new farm bill, which is set to expire on Sept. 30, is wilting as fast as a Midwestern cornstalk.

Now, only a handful of days remains on the legislative calendar before the election.

The farm bill was growing strong and steady through June. The Senate, under the leadership of Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Ranking Member Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), passed a strong, bipartisan bill. This bill showed real promise of reform and savings. The bill cut out the direct payment program, an antiquated system of risk management for farmers. Crop insurance was strengthened and expanded, ensuring that farmers would have to have “skin in the game” for their risk management needs.

The nutrition title, which makes up well over 80 percent of all farm bill spending, was also reformed. The days of lottery winners who still receive food stamps would be gone. Conservation would be strengthened, allowing farmers to partner with the federal government to grow their environmental stewardship.

Agriculture understands the importance of being fiscally responsible. Farmers are ready to do their part to reduce the national deficit. In fact, this bill would have saved taxpayers more than $23 billion, compared to previous farm bills.

The bipartisan House Agriculture Committee-passed bill, crafted by Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), would have saved taxpayers even more. But, like the fields that never benefited from timely rains to save their crops, House leadership dealt what could amount to a drought-like blow by not bringing up the farm bill for a timely vote.

Due to that lack of political urgency, farmers are now facing another potential disaster. This time, though, we can’t blame Mother Nature. This catastrophe is man-made.

Northern Michigan experienced record warmth for more than seven days in the middle of March. While 85 degree temps were welcomed after a long winter, we fruit farmers knew we were in for trouble. The hot weather awoke our trees from dormancy, pushing flower buds to mature four to six weeks early. As the weather patterns returned to normal, so did the cold, freezing temperatures, and they froze out the majority of the fruit grown in Michigan, my cherries included.

Tart cherries, the fruit you enjoy in pie, and the crop my family relies on for the majority of our harvest, is not eligible for crop insurance. Our industry has been challenging USDA’s Risk Management Agency to expand crop insurance to our fruit, but the wheels of bureaucracy seem to have been stuck in the mud.

The Senate-passed farm bill contained provisions to expand crop insurance to help farmers like me manage risk when weather catastrophes are out of our control. Much of the proposed legislation would help farmers who’ve been affected by this year’s drought, as well. Yet the House still has not scheduled a vote on this bill.

Farmers certainly aren’t the only people affected by the delayed passage of the farm bill. Twenty-three million people – one in every 12 working American’s – work in agriculture. Agriculture expands foreign trade, and is the only industry with a positive balance of trade.

Think, also, of the millions of schoolchildren and families in need that this bill helps to feed. Last year, the Agriculture Department reported that one in six Americans were “food insecure.” At one point or another last year, these folks weren’t sure where their next meal would come from. If it weren’t for the farm bill’s nutrition programs, many more might struggle to eat.

The droughts and other natural disasters may have done damage beyond repair to this year’s harvests, but the House could still breathe life back into this bill. It’s not too late.

Ben LaCross is a fruit grower in northern Michigan. He is a member of the Michigan Farm Bureau board of directors and is immediate past chairman of the AFBF Young Farmers & Ranchers Committee.