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Let the farm bill numbers game begin

As part of its planning for farm bill negotiations, the Congressional Budget Office estimated how many acres of corn and soybeans farmers will plant this year. (Photos: Xiaozhuli and Jason Thromm/Flickr)
As part of its planning for farm bill negotiations, the Congressional Budget Office estimated how many acres of corn and soybeans farmers will plant this year. (Photos: Xiaozhuli and Jason Thromm/Flickr)

The future of the farm bill remains largely unknown, but the Congressional Budget Office recently released figures that give lawmakers a place to start.

  Two of the agency’s reports give a window into what upcoming farm bill negotiations might look like. The Budget and Economic Outlook: Fiscal Years 2013 to 2023 is a comprehensive document that assesses the current federal budget and makes 10-year projections based on existing law. It then offers an analysis of the current economy. (The verdict: slow growth for at least another year.) The figures are intended as baseline information, which Congress uses when it sits down to hammer out budget deals.

Agriculture makes only a few brief appearances in this document. A table showing “Mandatory Outlays Projected in CBO’s Baseline” lists such expenditures as social security, Medicare and Medicaid, veterans’ benefits and unemployment compensation, as well as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the biggest farm bill item by dollar value. Then, under Other Programs, agriculture is listed along with higher education, deposit insurance and a few other programs Congress is mandated to fund.

But the report mentions that those mandatory outlays are expected to increase in 2013 compared to 2012 in part because of an $11 billion increase in agriculture spending.

To find out more about that figure, turn to the other fresh pile of numbers: CBO’s February 2013 Baseline for Farm Programs. These are preliminary numbers—the final ones come in March—but as Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said, “these are a preview.” And, importantly, the report “tells us the amount of money available to write a farm bill,” Grassley said.

The report suggests that both SNAP and crop insurance will cost the government less over the next decade, as an annual expense, compared to 2012. But commodity crop programs will likely get a larger slice of the pie, specifically the Average Crop Revenue Election safety net payments for corn, soybeans and wheat. The conservation programs are predicted to change, with overall spending on conservation decreasing a little over the next decade and some programs expiring altogether if they’re not written into a new bill. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition offered its take on the figures here.

Farmgateblog.com considered the CBO numbers and posed this question: Will you be planting more corn or more soybeans in 2013, compared to 2012?  It suggests the CBO’s projection of more corn acres and fewer soybean acres this year may be a preview of what USDA’s crop estimate figures will be, since both agencies likely use similar—if not identical—sources for their data. Those numbers have huge ramifications for farmers deciding what (and how much) to plant.

“In fact, the CBO may have let the cat out of the bag,” according to the blog, “as far as USDA’s crop projections.” The crop projections are scheduled for release later in February.

The projected figures in these reports do not consider the impact of sequestration—mandatory across-the-board spending cuts set to happen in March if Congress fails to pass a deficit reduction plan.

Perhaps everyone’s hope is that this time Washington will finish its work on time.