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October 14, 2012

Farm Bill encompasses more than agriculture

STILLWATER, Okla. — The 2012 Farm Bill, stalled in the House of Representatives, really is a food and agriculture bill, panelists said during a discussion of the bill at Oklahoma State University.

How much money to cut from nutrition programs kept the House from passing the Farm Bill before Congress recessed in September. The 2008 Farm Bill expired Sept. 30, and Congress won’t return to Washington, D.C. until after the Nov. 6 election.

“The Farm Bill is really a political animal,” Oklahoma Pork Council Executive Director Roy Lee Lindsey said.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates the 2012 Farm Bill will cost $969 billion over a decade. Nearly $770 billion will be appropriated to the food stamp program.

“It’s more of a food bill than a farm bill,” Lindsey said during Wednesday’s panel discussion at OSU’s Student Union. “Only a small portion is a farm bill.”

Oklahoma State University Agriculture Economics professor Mike Dicks said.

Food programs, Dicks said, are important but inefficient.

A record 46.7 million people are enrolled in the SNAP, food stamp program, which is an increase from 32 million people when President Barack Obama took office.

Ideally, the United State’s wouldn't need a Farm Bill, Dicks said. The marketplace would drive supplies and set prices.

“The market doesn’t care who goes hungry,” Dicks said. “We have a responsibility to feed the country and the world.”

It’s more difficult to feed the United States and the world with farmers/rancher comprising approximately 1 percent of the United State’s population. Technological advances allow fewer farmers to produce more food, Dicks said. Production increases fueled by better crop management, improved seeds and equipment improvements are slowing.

The 1-percent figure explains why farm programs have been paired with nutrition programs to create a Farm Bill.

Senators and congressmen elected in big cities don't care about farms, but want to make sure their constituents are feed, Lindsey said. So, nutrition programs joined farm programs in Farm Bills to get broad-based support.

“It will continue to have a dual purpose as long as it exists,” Lindsey said. “Ag producers are less than 2 percent of the population. You can’t separate the nutrition program because 2 percent of the population can’t get anyone elected.”

Fewer independent farmers are part of that approximately 1 percent, former State Sen. Paul Muegee, a longtime Grant County farmer, said. Big companies now contract with farmers, telling them what crops and how much they can grow.

“We have seen a big shift from farmer-driven public policy to corporate-driven public policy in the United States and the world,” Muegee said.

The agriculture portion of the Farm Bill does much more than provide a safety net for producers in the event of natural disasters. The safety net is there. It’s moving from direct payments to farmers to a federally subsidized crop insurance.

The agriculture portion also includes conservation, rural development, farmer training, organic farming and agriculture research programs.

Rural development and conservation programs are critical to local producers, Oklahoma Farm and Food Policy Director Bud Scott said.

“The small programs are underfunded,” Scott said. “They will be the first cuts even though they will have the smallest impact on the budget.”

The big question is when will a Farm Bill be approved.

Muegee said he isn't convinced a Farm Bill will be passed.

“There is some interest in Congress to not spend any (money) at all. They want to cut it all out,” he said.

A Farm Bill must be in place by May 1, Dicks said. If it isn’t, the provisions of laws passed in 1938 and 1949 will come into play.

Those provisions include government price controls, limits on acreage in production, mandatory higher prices for consumers on some products and no more direct payments to farmers.

“It will be March or April of next year,” Dicks said. “Politicians are playing a game of chicken just like they’ve played with other programs.”

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