In the waning hours of 2012, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Vice President Joe Biden negotiated a nine-month extension of the 2008 farm bill. The measure, attached to the fiscal cliff legislation passed by the Senate on Jan. 1 and House of Representatives on Jan. 2, was a lost opportunity for true farm policy reform.
Many smaller, targeted programs that invest in proven strategies to create rural jobs, revitalize rural communities and initiatives to foster a new generation of family farmers were completely left out of the farm bill extension. The eleventh-hour deal also failed to include any long-term dairy policy and prevents farmers from being able to improve soil and water conservation through enrollment in the Conservation Stewardship Program.
However, the extension of the 2008 Farm Bill does allow important foreign market development, disaster assistance and farm safety net programs to continue. While the extension is certainly preferable to the alternative of no bill and prevents outdated permanent agricultural law enacted in the 1940s from going into effect which would have pushed milk prices to $38 per hundredweight, it is only a stopgap measure. It does not provide the long-term certainty and stability that farmers need and deserve.
Once the extension expires on Sept. 30, we will be left at the same impasse we've had since the Senate passed its version of the farm bill in June and the House Agriculture Committee passed its farm bill in July unless our elected leaders can find a way to come back to the bargaining table with a renewed focus on what's important for all of agriculture and for the nation as a whole.
Newly-elected Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation President Jim Holte, says he is disheartened by Congress's inaction.
"We are disappointed that Congress did not agree on a new five-year farm bill that would have provided true reform to federal crop and dairy programs, and enhanced risk management tools," Holte said. "Passage of a new farm bill needs to be a priority of Congress in 2013."
I couldn't agree more.
Despite legislative consensus to reform federal dairy policies, an extension of the previous farm bill brings back the Milk Income Loss Contract (MILC) program, which acts as a safety net for dairy farmers when feed costs exceed the price they receive for their milk. In lieu of extensive dairy reform, Wisconsin dairy farmers appreciate having this safety mechanism back in place.
The measure received bipartisan support from both Wisconsin U.S. Senators Herb Kohl and Ron Johnson, along with Representatives Paul Ryan, Tammy Baldwin, Ron Kind, Reid Ribble and Gwen Moore who all voted in favor of the legislation. Representatives Tom Petri, Sean Duffy and Jim Sensenbrenner, all Republicans, voted against the measure.
In a vote earlier last year, the Senate gave a nod to the dairy policy reform outlined in the Dairy Security Act. The House Agriculture Committee did the same. But with the clock ticking and pressure on, Congress was never even given the opportunity to vote the Dairy Security Act into law.
As the Senate and House Agriculture committees begin work in February on a full, five-year farm bill, they should continue to support the Dairy Security Act, which eliminates the dairy product price support program, direct payments and export subsidies, and establishes a voluntary risk management tool for farmers that saves the government money.
In a business climate that is so uncertain, inaction on real reform as part of a greater farm bill makes it more difficult for farmers to plan, operate and make business decisions in a competitive marketplace. Wisconsin's dairy producers deserve better.
Current domestic dairy programs, as we have witnessed during the last decade, do not provide farmers with the tools they need to manage risk and weather the extremely volatile global marketplace. The Dairy Security Act, developed by dairy farmers for dairy farmers, is the best alternative to current programs and is supported by farmers from across the nation.
In coming months, hopefully the Senate an d House will do the right thing and reach across the aisle to foster bipartisan support for a farm bill that will address the long-term needs of U.S. farmers. Hopefully they can accomplish this in a timely manner and not wait until the last minute and then punt.