Farmers push Congress to pass new farm bill before year ends

Jessie Higgins
Elias Donker, a retired Army major, carries feed to his cattle on his Indiana farm. Veteran farmers like Donker are aided by farm bill programs, which are frozen until Congress passes a new bill. Photo by Jessie Higgins/UPI
Elias Donker, a retired Army major, carries feed to his cattle on his Indiana farm. Veteran farmers like Donker are aided by farm bill programs, which are frozen until Congress passes a new bill. Photo by Jessie Higgins/UPI

EVANSVILLE, Ind., Nov. 8 (UPI) -- With the Midterm elections over, farmers and farm groups are putting increased pressure on lawmakers to pass a new farm bill before the end of the year.

A joint House and Senate committee failed to pass a new bill before the old one expired Sept. 30, freezing dozens of programs. The committee now has until the end of the year to reach a compromise, or lawmakers will have to start over next year.


"That's a nightmare scenario," the Illinois Farm Bureau said in an email campaign it launched to pressure Congress to pass a bill.

Other groups agree, citing the numerous farm bill programs that protect natural resources, support organic farming, fund bioenergy research and help military veteran farmers (among other things) that hang in the balance.

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"We are living in a situation where agriculture is struggling all across the country," said Wes King, a senior policy specialist with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. "We shouldn't be pulling back on the tools to help farmers. We should be augmenting them."

The House and Senate committee will have a few weeks during the short, lame duck session of Congress to pass the new bill.


Many in the farming industry are optimistic that an agreement will be reached -- though they admit lawmakers have some big issues to work through before it can happen.

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"I'd say there's a 70 percent chance of getting a bill passed with this Congress," said Lori Faeth, the government relations director for the Land Trust Alliance, a national land conservation organization that supports the various conservation programs authorized by the farm bill.

The single biggest sticking point in the negotiations is whether to increase work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

Earlier this year, the House and Senate passed their own versions of the farm bill. The House's version included stricter work requirements for food stamp recipients. The Senate's bill did not.

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SNAP is the largest farm bill program, and takes up the lion's share of the bill's funding.

The other outstanding issues include support for commodity crops and land conservation. The House bill includes more support for cotton growers and it eliminates the Conservation Stewardship Program.

That conservation program devotes $6 billion a year to help farmers -- predominantly in the Midwest -- do things like reduce soil erosion on their properties. Such efforts reduce nutrient runoff, a phenomenon that's been blamed for a growing "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico.


The sticking points are partisan issues, supported by Republicans and opposed by Democrats, said Jonathan Coppess, a professor of agricultural policy at the University of Illinois.

"The election having ended turns down the partisan temperature," Coppess said.

This is especially true since Democrats have won control of the House, he added. If the current Congress does not pass a bill, it's likely the new Democrat-lead House will remove many of the provisions Republicans support when they start over next year.

"You can see a scenario where the House may relent on SNAP, and instead try to get the best deal they can for their farmers," Coppess said.

House Agriculture ranking member Collin Peterson, a Democrat who is expected to become the chairman in the new Congress, told reporters Wednesday that lawmakers were "relatively close" to reaching an agreement, according to Politico.

"I think we can work this out and get this done before this Congress adjourns," he said. "That is my number one priority, to get that accomplished."

The current House Agriculture chairman, Mike Conaway, R-Texas, also said he wants a new bill -- but stopped short of saying an agreement was close.


"This week's election results don't change the circumstances in farm country," Conaway said in a statement. "I remain 100 percent committed to completing the farm bill this year."

If the committee does not reach a deal this year, it will have to pass an extension of the 2014 bill.

"On the surface, that sounds ok," King said. But a general extension would not continue the dozens of programs currently frozen.

This happened in 2013, when Congress failed to pass a new bill and instead extended the old one. Many programs went dark, he said.

"We're happy with the Senate-passed farm bill," King said. "It's got lots of great programs to stem the tide of volatile commodities markets and help rural areas. We need a new farm bill."

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