published on October 12, 2018 - 7:00 AM
Written by David Castellon

While the fight over the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court has dominated business at the nation’s capital, the Senate and Congress quietly failed to pass a new federal Farm Bill by the Oct. 1 deadline.

While that news largely was missed by the general public, it didn’t go unnoticed by most in the farming and food industries.

What most people seem to know about the Farm Bill is that it involves providing government subsidies to producers of major staple crops in the U.S., including wheat, cotton, corn, milk and soybeans.

What they may not know is that “The Farm bill is set every five years. It sets policies and spending levels for the federal government around agriculture, and agriculture is a big concept. It not only involves production agriculture – what happens on the farm – but it also involves agricultural research, nutrition programs, [the] Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP], school feeding and lunch programs and USDA rural development programs,” said Dennis Nuxoll, vice president of federal affairs for Western Growers Association, the California-based, nonprofit trade group representing fruit, vegetable and nut growers based here and in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado.

While the U.S. Department of Agriculture crop subsidies don’t go to most California farmers, with the exceptions of rice and cotton growers and some dairies, many other programs funded and administered under the Farm Bill are important locally, from funding agricultural research and ag disease prevention to programs to help rural communities that include improving water quality and building hospitals.

And with the critically high ratio of impoverished people in the Valley, those food-assistance programs are invaluable to many families, with Nuxoll noting that almost two-thirds of the estimated $489 billion spent under the 2014 Farm Bill went to SNAP.

That bill ran out Sept. 30, as the government’s fiscal year came to a close, which is why the deadline to authorize a new five-year Farm Bill was the next day.

But that’s not a set-in-stone deadline, said Josh Rolph, federal policy manager for the California Farm Bureau Federation.

That deadline is Jan. 1, by which time the hope is members of Congress and the Senate, each of which have passed their own versions of a Farm Bill, can work out a compromise bill and pass it.

If they can’t, then one possible option is that on Jan. 1, 2018, the USDA, which administers the programs and dollars coming from the Farm Bill, reverts to “permanent law” an option neither the lawmakers, farmers or others generally want, Rolph said.

“Permanent law was the 1949 Act,” which means the provisions of the Farm Bill passed in 1949 take effect.

“We will go to old-style supply management and subsidy programs,” with subsidies being paid out at 1949 rates – adjusted for inflation, Nuxoll said.

While growers of some crops may actually benefit from those rates, expectations are these higher subsidies would raise prices of staple goods “sky high,” Rolph said.

But among farmers and dairies in California, a more pressing concern is that “Anything not part of permanent law would cease to exist,” meaning the food assistance programs, federal crop insurance program, ag research, etc. in the last Farm Bill would no longer be funded.

“We get research, rural programs, pest prevention, ag inspections on imports, negotiation of pest-prevention criteria for imports,” said Joel Nelsen, president of Exeter-based Citrus Mutual, a nonprofit trade association representing about 2,500 California commercial citrus growers.

He said both the House and Senate versions of the Farm Bill include funding for research on huanglongbing – or “HLB” – a citrus disease considered capable of devastating the U.S. citrus industry if it spreads unchecked. It would be one of the research programs defunded if no Farm Bill is passed and permanent law takes effect.

Despite the passing of the Oct. 1 deadline, the experts contacted said they aren’t worried much about that happening.

The various Farm Bill-funded programs are funded for this current fiscal year, so they can go on unimpeded.

And if the lawmakers can’t settle on a new farm bill by Jan. 1, they can extend the provisions of the 2014 Farm Bill, with Nelsen noting that bill was passed 18 months after its first deadline.

“That played havoc with budgets. USDA had to hold back resources in the event that they might have to shut down entire programs,” but things eventually got done, he added.

The experts noted that lawmakers have a strong incentive to pass a Farm Bill, as they don’t want to incur the wrath of their constituents should the price of bread, flour, milk, etc. rise considerably.

So the big questions become when the bill may be passed and whether any extensions are needed.

Congress will not return to session before the mid-term elections next month, and the outcome of those elections could substantially affect the negotiation process.

“If the House and Senate or the House or Senate were to flip, then you would most likely see an extension of the Farm Bill, as Democrats in whatever house they have the majority in likely would try to rewrite their respective versions of the bill, Rolph said.

“If that doesn’t happen, then we’re more likely to see a farm bill passed in December.”

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