What Will The Farm Bill Future Look Like?

When the Super Committee looked poised to pass the "secret farm bill" in November, the Environmental Working Group leaked a draft of the bill that revealed plans to cut $23 billion across farm bill titles over 10 years, and to eliminate the controversial direct payments to farmers. After the Super Committee failed to agree on cuts to reduce the deficit it was clear that the secret farm bill was going to have to be re-negotiated the old-fashioned way — through public meetings and a vote on the House and Senate floor.

In the wake of the failed secret farm bill two questions are dominating farm bill discussion — when will negotiations begin and will the secret farm bill be the starting point for the debates, or will the Ag Committee start from scratch?

The first question is easier addressed than the second (though nothing is ever simple when it comes to the farm bill). Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) has stated that her committee will resume farm bill meetings in January with the aim of producing a draft of the bill by the spring. However, House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) hasn't said that his committee will follow suit.

Further complicating the farm bill negotiation schedule is the upcoming 2012 election, leaving Congress more harried than usual and displacing attention from farm bill discussions.

But it's imperative that lawmakers remain focused on the farm bill if they don't want archaic legislation going into effect. Thirty-seven programs in the farm bill lose funding after FY2012, and if Congress does not pass new farm bill legislation that renews or reconfigures these programs, the 1949 farm bill will automatically be reinstated.

As to whether or not the secret farm bill will be used as a starting point is unknown; however, what is certain is that lobbyists for all issues will be coming out in droves, possibly swaying committee members' previous decisions made while drafting the farm bill behind closed doors. (See Environmental Working Group's graphic on farm bill hearings by topic). Furthermore, it is likely that $23 billion dollars will now be the minimum amount cut, meaning debates could get ugly quickly.

Dale W. Moore — deputy director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation in Washington — told Delta Farm Press, "But, I really believe that as we go into the farm bill debate, the $23 billion figure will be the floor for the discussion. The number's unlikely to get smaller. But just how it will be spread out over the multiple titles of the farm bill is anyone's guess."

While we await the start of the Senate Ag Committee's farm bill hearings in January we are left only with speculation. Will direct payments be eliminated? Will the "shallow loss" insurance programs that Big Ag has been clamoring for be instituted? How much will be cut from the nutrition title? What will become of the conservation programs? Will specialty crops (fruits and vegetables) be subsidized? The list of concerns is staggering, and as always, news of the 2012 farm bill leaves us with more questions than answers.