Between dangerously arid weather and a Congress that is delaying passage of one of the most important pieces of legislation for rural America — the farm bill — it’s not looking good for the nation’s farmers. Whispers of another Dust Bowl and the possibility of letting the farm bill expire (and revert back to the 1949 version) is not only making farmers uneasy, it’s also causing consumer worry about dreaded spikes in food prices.
Find out what’s going on below:
On Wednesday during a White House press conference, the Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, declared this drought the worst in 25 years — with 1,297 counties already designated as secretarial disasters, 39 more added the day of the press conference and more to come, it’s clear that rural America is under strain. As the Washington Post points out, this weather is not on par with the Dust Bowl (despite how it might feel), but the drought is still treacherous. In June, 54.6% of the country was experiencing drought conditions, compared to the 79.9% during the Dust Bowl’s peak in 1934. Nonetheless, as a result of the recent weather, the USDA cut its prediction for 2012’s corn production by a significant 12%.
While crop farmers can fall back on insurance to cover the majority of their losses, livestock producers have no such safety net. And as for the price of your summer hamburgers or corn-infused veggie burgers? Ag Secretary Vilsack warned that consumers may see rises in the cost of beef, pork, poultry and processed food, but not until early 2013. So fire up the grill while it’s still cheap. “Even with the difficulties we’re still looking at a pretty good crop as of today, but tomorrow it could change,” Vilsack said.
Farm Bill Woes
Like the drought, the farm bill has been trouble from day one and it only seems to be getting worse. First there was talk of a “secret farm bill” debated behind closed doors. When that didn’t happen, Congress was faced with the realization that the bill would have to be negotiated the old-fashioned way — on the floor. It’s easy to see why passing a massive piece of legislation that covers conservation, crop insurance and SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) might be daunting. But usually the knowledge that the bill will revert back to its 1949 version if it expires (September 30th in this case) is enough to kickstart members of Congress into rewriting or extending the legislation. Not so this time around.
While the Senate passed its version of the bill in June, the House only just finalized a mark-up of its own this week (to the dismay of many activists). Both bills received criticism for cutting money to SNAP, but the House’s current refusal to bring the bill to the floor — possibly until after its August recess — threatens the entire possibility of a new farm bill. The delay could not come at a worse time for livestock farmers, who are desparately in need of the disaster programs in the new bill to protect against losses from the drought. Politico writes, “The reality is that GOP leaders are worried about a messy floor fight over divisive regional policies months before voters head to the ballot boxes.” As of now, Speaker of the House John Boehner has unhelpfully said that no timeline is in place for when the bill will go to the floor.