The “smoking ruins” of the “Secret Farm Bill” aren’t a very fun place to be. Your tour of the site includes proposed cuts to conservation programs, reductions in federal nutrition programs, and problematic expansions of crop insurance, including the creation of a controversial new subsidy known as “shallow loss insurance” that would guarantee farmer income in the event of small drops in sky-high commodity prices. There’s also all that exhausting post-hype fallout raining down. Those motivated souls who paid attention to the Secret Farm Bill late last year are understandably reluctant to re-enter the area.
It’s time to ask: What are the chances that any of this will come to pass as scheduled this year? Certainly, legislators are hard at work. Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), architect of the shallow loss program, is already out among agribusiness folks flogging the idea once again. Meanwhile, a confident Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Senate Agriculture Committee chair, said in a speech recently that she will have a bill ready for a vote in “the first half of this year.”
But here come the red flags. According to this report in the trade paper Hoosier Ag Today, a big-league insider, former Bush administration Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Conner, said out loud what it appears many are saying to themselves about a farm bill this year: “Don’t hold your breath.” Said Connor, “with Congress not working well together, I feel it will be very difficult to get any work done on the Farm Bill” before the election.
As president of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives (NCFC), Conner is in a good position to speak on the matter. Don’t be fooled by the name — the NCFC includes the folks who put the “Big” in Big Ag. Connor’s group represents the interests of giants like Ocean Spray, Land o’ Lakes, Sun Maid, and the co-op with perhaps the worst reputation of them all, the Dairy Farmers of America (the latter group controls 40 percent of fluid milk production in the U.S. and was once fined $12 million for price fixing).
Conner did leave open the possibility that a farm bill could pass before the election if there’s one ready by Memorial Day. Tellingly — and in a reality check for good food advocates — he believed that the biggest roadblock to passage was not the efforts of those challenging subsidies and cuts to conservation on grounds of sustainability, but rather the infighting among Big Ag interests. “Farm Bureau struggled … last week [at the group’s national conference], and their proposals are different than the corn and soybean groups and sharply different than what the cotton and rice folks want.”
Indeed, more red flags were raised recently by House Agriculture Committee Chair Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) who fears a struggle on the House floor over how much to cut now that the attempt to ram a farm bill through the deficit supercommittee failed. Apparently, finding a House majority to support a farm bill skinned of conservation, nutrition, and organic programs, but larded with new subsidies — as Sen. Stabenow admitted to a Michigan farm group is in her plan — won’t be easy. In an interview [mp3] with a group of North Dakota reporters, Rep. Lucas himself raised the possibility of an extension of the farm bill that would push the subsidy debate until after the election.
The picture is looking so bleak that good food advocates can be forgiven for rooting for delay. At least 2013 holds the prospect of a re-elected President Obama. Of course it also holds the prospect of a President Romney. And/or a Republican-controlled Senate — though also perhaps a Democratic-controlled House. Admittedly, uncertainty reigns on every front. But one thing seems sadly true: The odds that the new farm bill will represent anything but a rolling back of recent gains are increasingly slim.