WASHINGTON – Vern Jantzen has spent most of his life on his family’s farm in Plymouth, Neb. After going away to college and receiving his degree in agricultural economics, he returned home to take over his family’s 307-acre farm in the rolling hills of southeastern Nebraska.
“I grew up doing it and my father did it and I was the oldest son so I decided I would like to come home and farm too,” the fourth-generation farmer said.
Because lawmakers in Washington did not pass a new farm bill last year, putting at risk the government’s ability to influence market prices and fund other farming programs, Jantzen and other farmers across the country face uncertainty with planting beginning soon.
In 2012, Congress failed to pass a farm bill – omnibus legislation that provides subsidies for farmers, programming for low-income families and funding for nutritional and organic research. To avoid an economic crisis for farmers and low-income families, lawmakers simply extended the old law – the 2008 farm bill – through Sept. 30, 2013 as part of the fiscal cliff negotiations.
For farmers like the 55-year-old Jantzen, receiving government subsidies is vital to earning a living and to working the farm that has been in his family since 1891.
“The main thing that people need to understand is that the farming part of it is just a really small part of it,” said Jantzen, vice president of the Nebraska Farmers Union. “People think farmers just go to the mailbox and get a check from the government and it doesn’t work that way.”
WHAT IS THE FARM BILL?
Farming, an integral part of American history, has provided millions of Americans work and established the nation as a global agricultural power with its vast resources. Until the 1920s, however, farms did not receive government subsidies.
Congress passed the Agricultural Adjustment Act in 1933, one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. The law was a comprehensive attempt to funnel monetary assistance to farmers in order to limit crop production and stabilize the agricultural market. Since overproduction of agricultural commodities was rampant during the Great Depression, the law provided farmers money upfront to discourage planting crops that would drive down market prices.
After the Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional in 1936, Congress enacted the farm subsidy again in 1938, altering some of the language to avoid infringing on states’ rights.
Following the Agricultural Act of 1948 that expanded mandatory price supports designed to stabilize the market, the farm bill was reauthorized about every five years over the next 60 years. Since that time conservation, nutrition and energy programming have all been added to the law.
“The farm bill is a bill that touches practically every American,” said Mary Kay Thatcher, the American Farm Bureau Federation’s farm policy specialist. It includes food stamps, rural development programs and energy funding in addition to sending support to farmers, she said.
“It provides them a safety net that is currently made up of typical farm programs as well as the crop insurance program,” Thatcher said.
The Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 passed over a veto by President George W. Bush with strong bipartisan support in both chambers. Bush objected to the bill because of overlapping programs and the price tag of almost $300 billion. That law was set to expire Sept. 30, 2012, but it authorized funding to cover crops through the calendar year.
Nearly two-thirds of the money in that farm bill was dedicated to nutrition programming, including food stamps, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and school healthy snack and lunch programs. Farming assistance accounted for only a quarter of the 2008 farm bill.
2012: A YEAR OF INACTION
An expiration date is included within every farm bill. If Congress fails to update and renew the law before that date certain, funding for some programs could revert back to the levels established in the 1938 and 1949 laws. For other programs, the money could disappear altogether.
Since December 2007 – the start of the recession – food stamp participation has drastically increased. According to the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program has seen a rapid increase in requests for benefits, rising from 10 million receiving benefits at the start of the recession to 47 million last September. Despite the food stamp increase, a focus on spending cuts stalled the farm bill in the last session of Congress.
The 2012 farm bill attempted to reduce the federal deficit by $23 billion and merge more than 20 farm commodity and conservation programs.
Despite contention surrounding $80 billion for food stamps and other nutritional programming for low-income individuals and families, the Senate passed the farm bill by a 64–35 vote on June 21, 2012.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., praised the legislative work, calling it “one of the finest moments in the Senate in recent times in terms of how you pass a bill.”
Subsequently, the House Agriculture Committee advanced a bill in July 12 with overwhelming bipartisan support – a 35-11 vote.
But House Speaker John Boehner never put it up for debate on the House floor.
“We will deal with the farm bill after the election,” Boehner, R-Ohio, said 10 days before the 2008 law expired. “The current situation that we face is we’ve got people who believe there’s not enough reform in the farm bill that came out of committee, [and] we’ve got others who believe that there’s too much reform in the bill that came out of the committee.”
Congress recessed for the fall election without taking action, but the consequences were not immediately felt since the old law was designed to continue funding many programs through calendar 2012.
With concerns of rising dairy prices and reduced funding for food stamps grabbing national headlines, Congress in its fiscal cliff agreement in late December included an extension of the existing farm law through this September.
A NEW SESSION, A NEW SEASON
In January, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., introduced essentially the same farm bill that passed the Senate the previous summer.
National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson praised Reid for starting the process early in the congressional year.
“Farmers and ranchers are in need of certainty through a five-year farm bill and we will continue to work with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to garner their support for a bill as soon as possible,” said Johnson, a third-generation farmer in North Dakota.
The Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee is expected to begin marking up the Reid bill next month.
On the House side, the Agriculture Committee has said a farm bill will be its primary interest.
“The Committee’s main focus this year will be on reauthorizing the farm bill…and improving on the product the committee passed last year,” the panel said in a letter to Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisc. “The committee believes the best way to achieve deficit reduction is in the context of the reauthorization of the farm bill with sustainable and fiscally responsible reforms.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said he believes more progress will be made on the bill this year because of a changed political climate.
“The difference now from last year is that it’s not an election year,” Grassley said.
It appears that the farm bill will not be stiff-armed by Boehner. At an Ohio Farm Bureau Federation forum on March 5, the House Speaker affirmed that the bill would be a priority this time around.
“We had a very tough time last year getting to a farm bill. We are going to do a farm bill this year. And I expect the Senate will do a farm bill as well,” Boehner said.
A DECLINING VOCATION
Despite the hopeful rhetoric, Mary Kay Thatcher knows passing the bill in a timely manner will be a challenge.
“We need to highlight the need to get this done because if we don’t highlight it, then issues like immigration, and gun control, and more budget reduction things will take precedent and we’ll just get pushed further and further down the line,” Thatcher said.
Today farm and ranch families comprise only 2 percent of the population. The decline of farmers across the country has contributed to the lack of urgency in passing a new bill, according to Thatcher.
“A lot of people believe that corporations own farms. The fact is, family farmers still make up more than 98 percent of all farms,” Thatcher said. “We have to do a tremendous amount of education with members of Congress and the public about what [the farm bill] is and why it’s important, etc., where it was just a given in the thirties, forties and fifties.”
Even with the timely introduction of the legislation, Vern Jantzen is not optimistic about Congress approving a farm bill in 2013.
“I worry a little bit about all the other things that are on their plate. The farmers are not a very big percentage of the population anymore,” Jantzen said.