Government reopens, but ag fears remain
By KAREN SCHWALLER
Following the temporary and partial shutdown of the federal government earlier this month, its implications were widespread across a varying number of organizations and agencies involved with agriculture.
During an Oct. 15 teleconference sponsored by the National Family Farm Coalition, based in Washington, D.C., the implications became evident as farmers and conservationists spoke up about how the shutdown – as well as the shutdown of the nation’s farm bill – affected them.
John Zipper, board chairman for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives located in Alabama, said the shutdown hit them hard. He said where he works, the West Alabama Black Belt, is an area with significant rural poverty. The Black Belt refers to the region’s rich, black topsoil.
“We’re in a consistently poor community with some of the most underserved people in rural America,” he said. “It was a double whammy for us, with 37 stranded programs that are not going because we don’t have a farm bill.
“We can’t get the last of the money we had coming because of the government shutdown.”
The warring political parties came to terms on Oct. 16, and President Obama signed a measure reopening government and restoring funding.
However, if the national budget, including farm bill spending, is not hammered out by Jan. 15, 2014, the government could close down once again.
Beth Hodges, a dairy farmer from New Hampshire, said she milks 100 cows and are seeing some of the highest cost of production ever.
She attributed it to the drought in the Midwest, along with no U.S.Department of Agriculture reports to help make decisions.
“So far this year, we’ve paid $37,000 more for grain than we did the previous year,” she said, adding that she would like to see grain prices and dairy prices arrive at a more fair level for producers. “Prices for our (grain inputs) are going down, but not to the degree they need to.”
Hodges said the dairy has value-added products which are funded by the federal government.
“We hope to continue to be funded so we can move forward,” she said.
Bill Wenzel, agriculture program director for the Izaak Walton League of America, said the partial and temporary shutdown caused double trouble for the league with 37 programs that were “orphaned” because there was no baseline.
Projects, he said, couldn’t move forward because funding was not available.
“In the grasslands reserve program,” Wenzel said, “which is very critical to saving native prairie in the Midwest, recent statistics indicate that we’re losing about 30 acres per hour of critical grasslands.
“Because of the failure to pass a farm bill, in South Dakota alone there are over 900 applications pending for the Grasslands Reserve Program that are not being met.”
Another priority not being addressed, Wenzel said, is the necessity of re-establishing the connection between conservation compliance and crop insurance premium subsidies.
“As the farmer’s safety net is moved from direct payments and commodity title subsidies to crop insurance,” he said, “we no longer have the ability at present to hold farmers in compliance for basic conservation practices that have been in existence since 1985.”
Wenzel said a recent study concluded that more than 145 million acres of cropland have come into compliance due to that linkage, resulting in 495 million tons of topsoil saved annually. He added that between 1.5 and 3.3 million acres of wetlands have also been preserved.
“We need to re-establish that linkage,” Wenzel said. “It’s very unlikely that we’ll get the consolidation and cost savings that both House and Senate ag committees contemplate as a result of what’s passed in their respective houses.
“We need to realize that, until we pass a farm bill, this will all stay in play and the conservation side will get hurt as a result.”
Parke Troutman, of the San Diego Hunger Coalition and a volunteer with the 1 in 10 Coalition, said the food assistance part of the farm bill has suffered greatly because of the shutdown.
He said the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, is a counter-cyclical program that is costing the economy $80 billion a year.
“That makes it the largest part of the farm bill by a good measure,” he said. “Right now, our main concern is the fear and uncertainty created by the shutdown.”
Troutman said SNAP is a life raft for families who need it, and can make the difference between putting food on the table and not putting food on the table.
“There is great potential for profound disruption to SNAP in the near future,” he said. “Word came down on Friday (Oct. 11) that USDA doesn’t currently believe there are tons of (dollars) for SNAP coming Nov. 1, so that means that by then, there could be no money for SNAP.”
Troutman said funding is already more strapped for SNAP and is complicated by misinformation and the differences in the way the House and Senate think of – and want to deal with – SNAP.
Funding cutbacks would result in making the application process more complicated, he said.
Kathy Ozer, of NFFC, said she favored a permanent, long-standing law, such as a farm bill, coming from negotiations.
The current system, she said, leaves farm programs open to annual nit-picking of disaster provisions, defunding and dismantling farm programs, fair pricing for dairy commodities and fair prices for farmers in general.
Following three weeks of shutdown, the government reached a temporary agreement on a short-term lifting of the federal debt limit.
Congress remains sharply divided and now faces the task of constructing a comprehensive budget agreement in two months.
“The agreement reached this week does reopen the government and its services, but it leaves in place the unresolved spending levels for 2014,” said officials from the Ames-based Council for Agriculture, Science and Technology. “It will also require automatic spending cuts across the board in January, commonly referred to as the ‘sequester.'”
CAST said the agreement calls for the first House-Senate budget conference since 2009. The conference will decide on next year’s spending levels and may consider a tax code modification and an amendment to the nation’s entitlement programs. It must be completed no later than Dec. 15.
“If the conferees fail to come to an agreement and nothing is done, the government again could shut down on Jan. 15, 2014, and would be facing a debt limit deadline of Feb. 7,” said CAST officials.
The House-Senate budget conference will be led by House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash.
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