Without a farm bill in place, farmers all over country are left to guess at what federal policy will look like. (File: Frank Morris/Harvest Public Media)
The farm bill expired at midnight on Monday, leaving farmers and ranchers across the country guessing at what federal farm policy will look like when they next put their crops in the ground.
Of course, they’re used to uncertainty, as this is the second straight year Congress has let the farm bill expire. Last year, farmers were set adrift for three months before lawmakers passed a nine-month extension of older policy in January.
Last time, the upcoming presidential election seemed largely to blame for the congressional inaction. This year, the farm bill was caught up in the partisan bickering surrounding a long line of important issues from immigration to health care. Farmers are among the many looking warily at Washington DC.
“Once again we do not have a farm bill in place,” said Iowa farmer Jeff Longnecker. “I don’t know what’s going on there. It’s like they’re both just trying to see how long they can stretch this out and not come up with an answer.”
It may be a while yet. Because farm policies are generally governed by the crop year, not the calendar, the previous farm bill programs apply to most crops already in the ground. The “dairy cliff” — caused by an arcane law that would force milk prices to double — would be among the first concrete effects of the lack of a farm bill, but it won’t be an issue until Jan. 1.
Farm policy actually has little to do with the stalled farm bill. In fact, legislators are mostly arguing over the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps, which makes up about 80 percent of the bill’s spending.
Steady farm policy is helpful, if not vital, for farmers. They want to understand what kind of safety net will be available to them when they decide how, where and what to plant. And those decisions make or break farmers every year.
Both the House and Senate have passed versions of farm bill legislation. Eventually, a conference committee will have to hash out the differences in the legislation and hammer out a compromise for each house to pass. But thanks to continuing partisan bickering and a legislative bottleneck, don’t expect a new farm bill any time soon.
Harvest Public Media’s Amy Mayer contributed to this report.