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When, oh when, will a farm bill be done?

By Janet Kubat Willette

Date Modified: 08/21/2013 7:57 AM

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GILFILLAN, Minn. — For the first time in his career, Rep. Collin Peterson said he doesn't know when the farm bill will be done.

It's not that leaders of the House and Senate agricultural committees are that far apart on what a final bill will look like. Peterson said if left alone, the committee could get its work done in a week.

But the hurdles keep popping up like gopher mounds in an alfalfa field.

The Senate passed a farm and food bill. The House passed a farm bill. The Senate appointed conferees to a conference committee, including Minnesota's Sen. Amy Klobuchar. The House hasn't. House leaders may not allow a farm and food bill to pass without a majority of the majority party voting for it. The president has said he won't sign a farm-only bill.

"I've never seen an atmosphere like this," said Peterson, who has served in Congress since 1991.

Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, said the dysfunction that exists in Washington is beyond belief.

It was only five years ago when the 2008 farm bill passed three times, including twice by a two-thirds majority required to override a presidential veto.

This time around, Tea Party Republicans killed the bill in the House after they got the amendments they wanted, Johnson said. They are listening to groups in Washington who don't want farm or food bill.

The best the farm community can hope for is that the House does something. Ideally, they would kill the bill that cuts food stamps and other nutrition programs by $40 billion and name conferees to a conference committee on the farm bill, Johnson said.

But getting a bill done by Sept. 30 is a real long shot.

"We need a farm bill. ... We need the certainty," said Bob Worth, a Lake Benton farmer and vice president of the American Soybean Association.

Worth joined Peterson, Johnson, Rep. Tim Walz and Dale Moore, American Farm Bureau public policy director, on a farm bill panel Aug. 6 at Farmfest.

The speakers all spoke in favor of a five-year farm and food bill, but none seemed overly optimistic that it would indeed come to pass this year.

In fact, Peterson said that another extension may be in the offing. A two-year extension is likely because the likelihood of passing a farm bill in an election year is slim to none.

Johnson said the absolute drop-dead date for a farm bill to be completed is Jan. 1 when permanent law goes back into effect and farm gate milk prices double overnight. That translates into higher prices at the grocery store.

"They're not going to let that happen," Johnson said of Congress.

It would be a repeat of last year's dairy cliff.

The 2012 extension extended the provisions of the farm bill, except for 37 programs, in order to meet the funding target. Those programs include beginning farmer funding, energy provisions, disaster programs, a number of conservation programs and some specialty crop programs.

Worth said Peterson did an extremely good job with the 2008 bill, which was written when Peterson was chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. Peterson is now the committee's ranking member.

"Believe it or not, this farm bill works," Worth said. "That is the kind of farm bill we need now."

A farm bill is written for bad times, not the good times, Moore said.

Some differences exist in the farm portions of the bills passed in the House and Senate, he said, but both have the same basic layout with a strong safety net and provisions to strengthen crop insurance.

The nutrition portion of the farm and food bill also is important to farmers because 23 cents of every $1 spent on nutrition programs comes back to the farmer, Moore said.

He said what goes on in Washington shouldn't be a spectator sport. Citizens need to get involved and let members of Congress know a farm bill must be passed.

Worth challenged everyone at the forum discussion to send an email to a member of Congress calling for his or her support of the farm bill.

The lawmakers pledged to continue working toward a five-year farm bill.

"All we can do is the best we can do and that's what we're going to do," Peterson said.