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Will there be a farm bill in 2012?

By Janet Kubat Willette

Date Modified: 12/27/2012 8:39 AM

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It's an abject failure that the nation doesn't have a farm bill, Rep. Tim Walz told people from across the nation gathered in Rochester last week for a beginning farmer conference.

Walz, who represents Minnesota's 1st Congressional District, spoke from Washington via facetime. The Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Development Program Project Directors Meeting brought people from about 120 organizations in 45 states to Minnesota for a two-day meeting. The Land Stewardship Project hosted the meeting.

Walz said the beginning farmers and ranchers program is well implemented and every taxpayer dollar invested in the program wisely spent. Walz is the lead author of the legislation, which first appeared in the 2008 farm bill and expired with the bill. Walz is again backing the legislation, but the farm bill is stalled in the House and its chances of passage appear dimmer each day.

It's imperative to transition new folks to the land, he said. Agriculture is one of the hardest occupations to crack into. The beginning farmer and rancher legislation helps train people who may have grown up in agriculture or who did not on what is required to run a successful farming operation. There are opportunities across agriculture, Walz said, including niche markets, which he called growth markets. It's a way to create a business that employs people and pays a living wage.

He said he's holding out hope the farm bill can pass, and he does not favor an extension.

It's looking less and less likely that a farm bill will be passed this year, said Adam Warthesen, who works on the farm bill for the Land Stewardship Project.

Both the farm bill passed in the Senate and the bill passed out of the House agriculture committee contain funding for the beginning farmer program, Warthesen said. The House has $50 million and the Senate, $85 million. Both are spread over the five years of the bill. Funding in the 2008 farm bill was $75 million over five years.

The bills cuts from $2 billion to $2.5 billion from conservation funding and the Conservation Reserve Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program can't offer new contracts now since the 2008 farm bill has expired. However, signups can still be taken for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Warthesen said.

While on the surface it looks like not much changed in Washington with the election, American Farm Bureau Federation's Mark Maslyn encouraged Farm Bureau members to look below the surface.

"There have been some subtle changes," he said, speaking Dec. 1 at the Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation 94th annual meeting, held in Bloomington.

Republicans lost seven seats in the House, but still hold a strong majority. Senate Democrats gained two seats, surprising everyone, he said. Four of the president's cabinet members, the Attorney General and the Secretaries of State, Treasury and Defense, have announced they won't stay on for the president's second term.

The Congress that convenes in January will be more polarized than the current Congress with fewer moderates, Maslyn said. There are also fewer members with a long tenure. A majority of senators, 56, have served for six years or less. In the House, 279 members have been there for eight years or less.

It makes the job of telling agriculture's story all the more difficult, he said.

Maslyn said Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, is known as a bridge builder who can work with Republicans and Democrats.

Right now, both sides are jockeying for position. Big things can happen in the next 18 months, he said. He doesn't know if there will be cooperation or confrontation, but there are a lot of issues to be dealt with. There are a hundred tax issues to be resolved, the debt ceiling will have to be raised again and there are $1.2 trillion in budget cuts that will take effect Jan. 2 without action during the lame duck session.

Lame duck sessions are unique in that lawmakers give themselves three to four weeks to do the work they couldn't do in the previous 11 months, Maslyn said.

He's not sure that the farm bill will pass during the lame duck; however, he prefers that it pass this year saying there's going to be less money next year and passing the bill will only become more difficult.

One reason it will be more difficult is there will be new people involved.

Walz said his Republican colleagues on the House agriculture committee are being replaced by other members.

On the Senate side, Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican, may be bumped as ranking member on the Agriculture Committee.

An extension of the 2008 farm bill wouldn't be a slam duck either, Maslyn said.

If the bill isn't passed during this lame duck session, Congress will have to start anew with the farm and food bill when the new Congress convenes in January, Warthesen said. It will be the third version of the 2012 farm bill. The first was written for the supercommittee that failed. The second was written this year.