May 21, 2012
New farm bill in the works

On April 26, the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry passed its version of the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012, also known as the farm bill. It was the first step toward the bill becoming law, which could happen this summer or fall.

Of course, there are a “million ifs” in the process of putting a farm bill together, said John Keeling, executive vice president of the National Potato Council. NPC is a member of the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance (SCFBA), a coalition of more than 120 organizations that helped specialty crops get a bigger chunk of the 2008 farm bill and is working to do the same in the 2012 version.

The 2008 farm bill was a landmark for specialty crops, giving them a serious stake in the legislation for the first time, said Dennis Nuxoll, vice president of federal government affairs for Western Growers Association (an SCFBA member).

In addition to reauthorizing the Market Access Program and conservation initiatives like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the 2008 farm bill provides funding for the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, Clean Plant Network and the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, according to Diane Kurrle, vice president of public affairs for the U.S. Apple Association (also an SCFBA member).

“We would love to build on those programs,” Nuxoll said.
There will be many challenges in passing this year’s bill, however, with a federal budget deficit at the top of the list, said Bob Stallman, president of American Farm Bureau Federation. Stallman, and others, are expecting billions of dollars in cuts to the 2012 version.

Nuxoll laid out a potential timetable for the remainder of the farm bill process: Once the bill passed the Senate ag committee, it was a possibility it would get floor time in front of the entire Senate in May. A full Senate vote is possible around Memorial Day.

The process might be helped along by agreements made last fall between House Committee on Agriculture Chair Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and Senate ag committee Chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. They reached a consensus during last fall’s budget debate – a consensus that would be good for specialty crops, as it includes full or even increased funding for priority programs. However, the Stabenow/Lucas agreement was contingent on the “super committee” finishing its work on deficit reduction. When that committee failed, it meant an end to the farm bill agreement and a return to the “regular order” of hearings and committee markups, according to Kurrle.

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives was lagging behind the Senate. The House ag committee was spending April reconciling its budget plan with the overall budget that was passed by the full House in March, Nuxoll said.

The full House budget (which isn’t likely to become law, Nuxoll said) calls for about $180 billion in cuts to farm bill programs over 10 years. That’s a far cry from the $23 billion in cuts the Senate ag committee is calling for, said Wendy Fink-Weber, director of communications for Western Growers.

The House ag committee will keep an eye on the Senate’s progress, but probably won’t take action until June or so. The bill it comes up with would need floor time in front of the full House, but the timing will be tight because of the July 4 break, then the summer recess that starts in August. The House would have to squeeze in a farm bill vote at the end of July or wait until after the summer recess, Nuxoll said.

If and when each chamber passes its version of the farm bill, the differences would have to be worked out by a joint conference committee. If and when the conference committee negotiates a compromise, the bill would be sent to President Obama for his signature, Nuxoll said.

By Matt Milkovich, Managing Editor





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