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At the intersection of food, soil, climate, farming and water.

Farm Bill Update – How Long is Too Long?

Really now, I begin to feel like a scold.  The parent in me wants to send Congress to its room or worse.   A year ago, farmers and eaters alike were shocked to see that Congress planned to abdicate its responsibility to pass a new Farm Bill before the 2008 Farm Bill authorization expired at the end of September 2012.  But abdicate Congress did, with only nutrition programs authorized for continued funding.  Along came the New Year’s fiscal cliff deal, and Congress passed a half-baked temporary extension that once again expires at the end of September – a year later.  Even worse, that extension didn’t even include a number of programs affecting a tremendous portion of agriculture, including new farmers– so those programs have been paralyzed for almost a year.

So let me repeat – for two years now, Congress has worked in fits and starts on writing and passing a Farm Bill; and for two years, partisan maneuvering for leverage has gotten in the way of the work of the people in accomplishing this task.  Admittedly, it’s not a simple task, because the Farm Bill is a complex piece of legislation, which touches the lives of every single American, whether through its nutrition provisions to ensure that low-income consumers have food to eat, through the conservation provisions that protect the quality of water that we drink, or through its research, trade, and many other provisions.

We need a new Farm bill to keep a reliable framework for agriculture.   The Farm Bill sets the framework for support for farmers of all kinds, whether as crop insurance, direct subsidy, research, market development assistance, marketing data, or the many other forms of support that help farmers provide for the nation’s needs.  And the farm families, communities, consumers, and industries that depend on those farmers need to have an authorization, as do the beneficiaries of the many programs stranded by the inadequate New Year’s fiscal cliff deal – local and regional farmers, specialty crop farmers, beginning farmers, underserved farmers, and the consumers served by all of them.

And we came very close to having a bill.  Both houses’ Agriculture Committees passed bills earlier this summer, and the Senate voted to pass theirs.  But House leaders once again refused to bring theirs to the floor, insisting instead on carving off the low-income nutrition provisions as a separate bill, which is expected to be voted on the week of September 16.  If, as some predict, this nutrition bill retains the extreme cuts and many of the punitive provisions that rendered it un-passable when it was introduced earlier this summer, then it raises the question of how seriously the House takes agriculture. Because if the goal is to “get to yes” on a Farm Bill, the House has created a difficult way to get there.

Agriculture matters.  Farming matters.  Food matters.  Rural communities matter.  Urban agriculture matters.  The water, soil, wildlife, wetlands, and other natural resources stewarded by agriculture matter.  And they matter enough to not have the Farm Bill used as a bargaining chip for big partisan fiscal and ideological fights that don’t have anything to do with agriculture.   It’s less than two weeks before the end of September 2013.  It’s time for Congress to get to the tasks they’re elected to perform – and one of the highest priorities among any list of tasks is passing a Farm Bill – not an extension, not for just some programs, and not a provocative carve-out from the Farm Bill, but a complete and comprehensive Farm Bill, for which the vast majority of the legislative work has already been completed.

All signs point to congressional failure in passing a Farm Bill by the end of September, so Congress must first pass a comprehensive extension.  They should then immediately chart a course where the two houses can negotiate differences between their very different versions and hand over to the American people what they should have done well over a year ago – a complete Farm Bill that the President can sign.