News Column

Growers Awaiting Farm Bill Decision

July 16, 2013

When the fall harvest comes, Fred Yoder of Plain City will face a decision: whether to put up new bins to store what he hopes will be a strong corn and soybean crop this year.

Congress, he said, is doing very little to make that decision easier.

Instead, for the first time in decades, the House passed a five-year farm bill on Thursday without attaching federal food-assistance programs. The decision to do so -- born, Republicans say, out of political necessity after the House failed to pass a comprehensive farm bill in June -- has put the whole process in disarray and left farmers skittish about what sort of federal legislation will ultimately exist to protect them should disaster strike.

In the interim, some farmers say they're hesitant to make big investments or major decisions until they get some clarity.

Farmers rely on the farm bill to provide some certainty in case of bad weather or a drop in market prices. Without that certainty, Yoder, 58, said, "I think you'll find most farmers pulling the cavalry in and circling the wagons."

The farm bill -- traditionally one of the more bipartisan measures in Congress -- has typically been one of the more pro forma measures passed in Congress, with divisions occurring more along geographic lines than partisan ones.

But in recent years, federal nutrition programs, which now represent roughly 80 percent of the bill's costs, have divided conservatives, who'd like to see that money cut, and liberals, who say that nutrition assistance provides an invaluable safety net to the country's poor.

Last month, the House tried to pass a bill that cut $20.5 billion over the next decade out of the federal food-stamp program. Some 62 conservatives voted against it, saying the cuts weren't enough. Democrats, meanwhile, unified against it because they said the cuts would be devastating to families who need the assistance to live. The Senate, meanwhile, passed a bill in June that cut food stamps by about $4 billion over a decade.

Congress has until Sept. 30 to agree to a final bill. If it doesn't, it's possible that both programs will revert to permanent law. Ironically, that would mean conservatives who wanted to cut the food-stamp program wouldn't see any cuts.

Those who wanted cuts to food stamps beyond the $20.5 billion, said Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Lakeville, "gave away the store. ... They're going to have an education here, because they're not going to get what they want to get."

Gibbs voted for the most-recent farm bill, but did so with grave reservations, including those about the bill's handling of target prices.

What's left behind is a headache that many Ohio farmers and organizations representing Ohio farmers say they could do without. They wrangled with the same uncertainty when the 2008 farm bill expired last year, only to have Congress pass a one-year extension. Now they're back in the same position.

"I would like to see the House come up with a bill that can actually get through the conference and get through the Senate," said Lane Osswald, 37, a farmer from Eldorado, in western Ohio's Preble County, who tends about 1,000 acres of corn and soybeans. He said he has a feeling of " uneasiness, uncertainty" about what's going on in Congress.

Yoder described the splitting of nutrition programs from the farm bill as "the dumbest idea I've ever heard."

Among those who opposed splitting the bill were the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation and the National Farmers Union.

They say that the alliance is a practical and political one. Farmers, after all, provide food for the country -- and that includes both poor and wealthy. But politically, they also need to ensure that they'll have votes from lawmakers representing urban districts. The marriage, they say, has been a practical one that ensures that even lawmakers with little knowledge of federal farm programs have a good reason to vote for the bill.

"Everyone has to have skin in the game in order to get it passed," Yoder said.

Clark County farmer Jay Flax said he believes that food stamps "should never have been part of the farm bill," but worries about what happens if the programs are split apart. "I'm afraid if they go splitting it up, the farm part of the bill will take a really big hit," he said.

Those representing the poor, meanwhile, are also outraged. They say the original House bill -- which cut $20.5 billion from federal nutrition programs over a decade -- was overly harsh. Nearly 1 in 6 Americans relies on food stamps. Among Ohioans, that represents the poorest of the poor -- those earning $931 a month or less, said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Food Banks, who said 1.9 million Ohioans currently participate in the food-stamp program.

"This is a continuing war on the poor," she said, calling the program "the first line of defense against hunger."

Brian Harbage, a Clark County corn, soybean and cattle farmer, questions whether Congress has forgotten what he believes should be one of its primary roles: making sure there's a safe, reliable supply of food, and making sure everyone has access to that supply.

"The bottom line is, food safety and security is where we need to come together," he said. "I don't see any two more important issues for the United States."

jwehrman@dispatch.com

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