Nation’s farm bill expires, critical programs shutter as government shuts down

DENVER — On Monday, as House Republicans determined to defund the Affordable Care Act steered the federal government toward shut down, the limping extension of the now-five-year-old law that governs the nation’s farm policy expired.

The federal Farm Bill, as it’s known, covers a vast array of agriculture and nutrition matters, including the food stamps program, crop subsidies and insurance, conservation and agricultural research and training. At nearly $1 trillion, the bill is a gargantuan piece of legislation that serves out vital and heaping slices of the federal budget pie.

The 2008 farm bill, which was due for an update in 2012, was extended because Congress couldn’t agree on how to update it. This summer, the Democrat-controlled Senate passed a reform version but the Republican-controlled House aimed to deeply slash funding for food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Lacking the votes to pass their version of the bill, House leaders split off the food assistance portion and passed two separate bills instead. It was a radical and politically charged move and negotiations to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the SNAP-less farm bill never even started.

“[W]hat we’ve done is revert back to permanent law in many cases, which is from the 1940s — and clearly our agricultural practices have changed a bit since then,” said Adam Bozzi, spokesman for Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, who sits on the agriculture committee. Bennet is part of the Senate delegation waiting for House leaders to send representatives to negotiate.

“Yeah, it’s pretty darn bad,” said Greg Fogel, policy specialist at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. “You have a couple things going on at once: the expiration of the farm bill extension and the government shutdown. The [US Department of Agriculture] is being hit with a double-wammy cut in authority and funding.”

With little money and less staff, Fogel said, many USDA programs along with its website froze immediately this week.

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“Conservation efforts are undermined in particular. There’s money left to sign new farmers up for conservation programs, but the USDA now has no authority to use that money.”

Many of the department’s smaller programs focused on research, technical innovation and training for new farmers will languish until a new five-year farm bill passes. Most new, organic and small-scale sustainable farmers rely on these programs and on its startup loans, many run through the USDA’s Farm Service Agency.

“We can’t really access resources,” said Mike Nolan, who farms one and half acres in Durango but had planned to expand to four acres. He bought the land but is unsure how he can make it pay given the state of things on Capitol Hill.

“I bought property this summer and already, when I was calling the [Farm Service Agency] this spring, all I heard was ‘We have no money.’ Everyone was telling me, ‘Don’t worry, put your application in and you’ll get your money October 1.’ That’s clearly not happening… what a shit show.”

Meanwhile, money still flows to the farm bill’s biggest expenditures — subsidies and SNAP.

“The irony in all of this is that the faction of the House GOP that continues to hold up the process is continuing the food stamps program at current funding levels with no reform,” said Fogel. “It’s in the interest of the House GOP to work with the Senate to pass a full five-year bill that at least contains some reforms to SNAP.”

That won’t happen until the shutdown ends and the House assigns conferees.

Bennet, like most Democrats, believes that the House’s proposed $40 billion cut to the SNAP program is extreme, coming in at ten times the cut proposed by the Senate. Bozzi was nevertheless cautiously optimistic about negotiations.

“If the House ever decides to appoint conferees, we can get something done,” he said. “We’ll hear what they have to say and try to work something out.”

Colorado U.S. Representatives Cory Gardner and Scott Tipton, Republicans from rural, agriculture-heavy districts in Colorado, have repeatedly called for the passage of a new farm bill. Neither was available to comment on where the House currently stands on the negotiations.

Meanwhile, farmers across Colorado are busy with the harvest. In Durango, at the southern tip of Tipton’s district, Nolan’s potatoes are out of the dirt, but his patience has long expired.

“I’m surprised these Congress people can put on their own shoes in the morning,” he said. “How can I expect them to agree on anything as big as the farm bill? It’s become way too partisan and way too crazy.”

Winter is coming and folks in the farm business, big and small, see their own fiscal cliff rising on the horizon.

“The immediate issue is how do we get crops in the ground this fall and next spring without being able to borrow any money,” said Bill Midcap at the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union.

Midcap, and virtually every other farm advocate, has spent the last year explaining that people in the food-producing line of work rely on bank loans shored up by the federal insurance provided by the farm bill in order to manage the huge seasonal investments that keep their operations running. No credit, no corn. No loan, no lettuce.

In the face of expired national agriculture policy, a defunct and essentially unreachable Department of Agriculture, and land ravaged by droughts, fires and floods, Midcap said it was hard not to feel personally insulted this week.

“The government shutdown is a slap in the face.”

[ Top photo via Flickr cc by Marc Dalio ]