Time is running out to pass the 2012 farm bill before it expires Sept. 30, but a final surge at the finish line by farm groups and legislators could get the job done.
An inside glimpse of what U.S. Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is doing to fight for farmers was the focus of a round-table discussion Thursday put on by the senators staff at the Jefferson County Cornell Cooperative Extension office, 203 N. Hamilton St. Attended by more than a dozen farmers and local agriculture experts, the lively back-and-forth dialogue shed light on many of the challenges todays farmers face: high milk and grain prices, costly regulations, and politicians who seem to care more about November election results than helping farmers get back in business after the drought.
No five-year farm bill has ever been passed during a presidential election year, however, so the odds are against farmers who want the job done soon, said Kathryn Tanner, agriculture adviser for Mrs. Gillibrand. Although the Senate passed its version of the bill in June, House leaders have stymied a vote on its version that was passed in July by the House Agriculture Committee with a strong bipartisan vote.
Farmers are saying, Please put politics aside and vote for the farm bill, Ms. Tanner said, But if I were to put a percentage on it, I think we have a 25 percent chance of getting it done in September because its an election year. But it could be done with enough collective action.
The Obama administration has urged House Republican leaders to allow a vote on the bill. Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, has said the bill is being blocked by leaders because Republicans couldnt pass the bill alone and need votes from Democrats.
If its not passed by the end of the month, the bill passed in 2008 would be extended. A one-year continuing resolution would give Congress time to get the proposed bill passed by next fall. If that doesnt happen, this whole process will start over again, Ms. Tanner said.
John W. Wagner of the New York Farm Bureau, a field supervisor in the north country, said farmers are disconcerted by the delay.
All of our farmers have a sense of urgency to be able to pass this now not sit there or continue to kick the can down the road for another year, he said. Farmers want to develop their five-year business plans now and take into account these changes.
Farmers here dont agree with all of the parts of the bill. The new margin insurance program for dairy farmers, which would replace the Milk Income Loss Contract program, includes limits on the amount of milk dairy farmers can produce with the goal of preventing a national oversupply. Dairy farmers who produce more milk than planned during the year would be fined.
Mrs. Gillibrand opposes the supply management plan, which could slow down the growth of dairy plants in the Northeast. Dairy farmers have been challenged to produce more milk to supply the states booming Greek yogurt industry, for example, but the supply program would penalize farmers who expand their herds too fast.
We have a tremendous opportunity to grow the dairy industry here, but this bill takes that away, Ms. Tanner said. Supply management makes sense for large farms with 60,000 cattle, but small farms arent contributing to the problem. Small farms that want to grow dont want to be part of this.
The insurance program is designed to help farmers combat low milk prices and high feed costs; it would reimburse farmers when the difference between their costs and prices exceeds a certain threshold. If the milk price drops $4 per hundredweight below the amount of farmers feed costs, insurance payments would kick in to help them regain some of their losses.
Lynette S. Robinson, who owns a dairy farm in LaFargeville, said managing the national milk supply by fining farmers will be a disincentive for those seeking to grow. According to Sen. Gillibrands office, the supply program likely will cost New York farmers an average of $2,000 to $3,000 a year.
Governor Cuomo said at the Greek yogurt summit he would work with dairy farmers to produce more milk, but how can we do it with more costs? Mrs. Robinson asked. This so-called safety net is ludicrous, because we have to pay for whats happening with dairy producers across the country.
Ms. Tanner said another contentious issue on which Republicans and Democrats clash is proposed cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, which normally accounts for 75 percent to 80 percent of the total funding for the bill. The number of people on food stamps has doubled in the past 10 years.
Members of Congress in urban areas want safety net programs for people on welfare, but they want to cut a multitude of programs out of the bill that affect farmers to do it, she said. Those who want to keep funding high could prevent the bill from getting passed.