Bringing the Economy Home

Farm Bill Delays Bring Frustration, Resignation In Idaho

Molly Messick / StateImpact Idaho

Emmett, Idaho, where farmer Vaughn Jensen raises corn, wheat, alfalfa hay, clover seed and cattle

A coalition of farm groups calling itself Farm Bill Now will descend on Washington, D.C. next week.  The group aims to pressure Congress to take action on 2012 farm bill legislation before the current farm bill expires September 30.

The Senate passed its version of the bill months ago, in June, but the full House has yet to take it up.  Many expect that stall to continue until after the November election.

Idaho Farm Bureau spokesman John Thompson says the delay poses problems for farmers in Idaho and nationwide. “Not only are we experiencing the worst drought since 1956,” he says, “but a farm bill in place gives farmers certainty into the future, when they’re trying to plan crop rotations or capital purchases or building herds or reducing herd sizes.  If no farm bill is in place, they can’t use that to their advantage.” 

The farm bill is the broad umbrella that includes not only conservation, crop insurance and subsidy programs, but also the food stamp program.  In fact, food assistance takes up the better part of farm bill spending.  And that’s the hang-up.  The Senate version of the bill includes cuts to the food stamp program, but House Republicans want more.

“Congress just can’t seem to get together because they’re caught up on the feeding and nutrition programs in the bill,” Thompson says.

In that disagreement lie risks for Idaho farmers, he says.  “We feel like the cuts to agriculture programs are reasonable and should be put in place,” Thompson explains.  “As time goes on, those cuts could become bigger, and so that’s why the pressure is being applied.”

Thompson wants Idaho’s two U.S. House members to know: the Idaho Farm Bureau is displeased.  “I think either Simpson or Labrador needs to answer to why there’s no compromise, why there’s no movement,” he says.  “To me, it’s obvious:  It’s an election year.  They don’t want to do anything.  But those are the guys who belong on the hot seat on this issue.”

Neither Rep. Raul Labrador nor Rep. Mike Simpson serves on the House agriculture committee.  Through his press secretary, Rep. Labrador declined to speak to StateImpact on the issue, citing a tight schedule.  Rep. Simpson’s press secretary, Nikki Watts, responded on his behalf.  “Congressman Simpson completely agrees that we need to get a farm bill passed,” she says.  “He hopes they will look into that before they recess for the election.”

As for Idaho farmers themselves, several reached this week were more likely to greet questions about the farm bill impasse with a shrug and a sigh.  “They’ll pass a farm bill,” says Vaughn Jensen, who raises cattle and corn, among other things, on his farm near Emmett.  “But it’s got us all guessing as to what and when it will be.”

He says, sure, not knowing what the farm bill will look like creates a measure of uncertainty — but Idaho farmers have less at stake right now than those in the Midwest, whose crops (and profits) are wilting in the drought.

“When we try to look two, three, four, five years down the road, we’re trying to anticipate the right moves to survive and hopefully prosper,” Jensen says of his own operation. “If they change a program it can cause acreage shifts.  For instance, if they decide to encourage the growth of more wheat through a subsidy, that would create a shift.  We don’t see that coming.  The big thing I see coming in the markets is the delayed effect of the drought.”

But the current hold-ups, he says, are no big surprise.  “Every time we’re in the process of passing a new farm bill there’s a lot of complaints and apprehension,” Jensen says.


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